About 10,000 years ago, a land mammal miraculously survived the 2,500 or so miles of ocean between the North American continent and Hawai’i Island. The jury is still out on how it managed the trip, but the theory is that the ability to fly had something to do with it.
That’s right—Hawai’i’s only surviving endemic land mammal was a bat! A relative of the Native American Hoary Bat, perhaps these critters roosted in a tree that was swept away in the tide, or were blown out to sea by a storm. Whatever the case, they made it here, and have remained here ever since to grace the purple dusk with their wheeling forms.
Bats, in general, are sadly misunderstood creatures. We’ve all heard the ill-conceived myths about them: they drink blood, or they’re dirty animals that spread disease, or they will try to nest in your hair. None of these are true! Okay, so there are one or two species of bat that do drink blood, but they don’t exist in the states, and they aren’t interested if you’re human; they aren’t particular harbingers of disease, at least not more than any other mammal—just because they look like rats doesn’t mean they’re related, and they won’t give you the plague; lastly, if a bat gets stuck in your hair, it certainly wasn’t on purpose, and it’s probably more freaked out than you are.
Every continent on earth, with the exception of the poles and islands more remote than Hawaii, has at least one species of bat. Hawai’i, as it happens, has exactly one! Though science has recently unearthed the existence of a second bat on the island long ago, it has long since gone extinct, leaving the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, or Ope’ape’a, the sole winged mammal of the island. Considering its very special status as our only bat (and now as the state mammal!), Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park really put this bat on the front lines for bat week!
For starters, we led a social media campaign. Through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we created 9 posts—that’s more than one for every day of Bat Week. These included some really cool facts about our bat, specifically, including it’s size (about 40% smaller than its cousin, the North American Hoary Bat), its roosting preferences (trees), its awesome Hawaiian name, and even its tendency to birth adorable twin pups! The results were very encouraging, with our most popular post reaching over 12,400 people on Facebook, and the whole collection boosting Instagram and Twitter by 4,743 and 55 likes respectively.
The best part about the social media response is that it gets information about the Ope’ape’a out there for the public. This bat is very elusive, hiding amongst leafy trees most of the time, and easily missed by pedestrians, but it’s actually a pretty amazing creature. And while Hawai’i has no documented record of White Nose Syndrome or rabies, that doesn’t mean this bat has no threats. Both deforestation and, to an even greater extent, pesticides limit this bat’s population. So the more we can inform the public about its native bat, named Ope’ape’a because its wings look like half a taro leaf, the more we can get them on board to protect it.
So what better strategy than to have them meet one, themselves?
Okay, so we didn’t bring a live Ope’ape’a into the visitor’s center. Instead, since the last day of Bat Week fell serendipitously on Halloween Monday, we had a lucky intern (none other than myself) dress up as a Hoary Bat and fly around sharing fun bat facts and taking selfies with visitors. How perfect that we already had the costume from a past parade! The visitor’s were certainly fans of the fun, and once again more information was spread around about Hawai’i’s state mammal. After all, the more we know about these leather-winged critters, the cooler we realize they are, and the more we can debunk the myths that plague them.
Here’s to the bats!