Holy Bat Chat, Batgirl! Medic Is Cracking Bat Code

January 16, 2004

Barbara French is the real Batgirl. Over the past decade French has shared her house with a colony of up to 75 Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).

By watching and listening, day and night, she has decoded a basic repertoire of bat calls and deciphered the social context in which they are used. Her collection is the largest captive insectivorous bat colony in the United States and is proving to be an incredible resource for bat researchers.

French's obsession with bats began with a move to Austin, Texas, in 1981.

Texas hosts both the largest urban, and wild, bat colonies in the world. One and a half million Mexican free-tailed bats roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin. Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, is the largest aggregation of mammals in the world—20 million bats gather here to give birth and raise their young.

A visit to the bridge in 1991 triggered French's fascination. "I was standing under the bridge and couldn't see a single bat, then all of a sudden a huge cloud just dropped from the underside of the bridge and flew out—I was captivated," said French, currently the science and conservation information specialist at Bat Conservation International, in Austin.

Her role as bat medic arose serendipitously after she found an injured bat near the bridge. After inquiring which animal shelter could help the creature she discovered few people cared for bats; she began treating the animals herself.

Birth of a Bat Colony

"Barbara is exceptional—she is at the extreme end of enthusiast and has done things with bats that no one can do," said Gary McCracken, a biologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who studied interactions between mother and pup Mexican free-tailed bats in the wild. "She has taken bats splattered on trucks, nursed them back to health, and performed C-sections and amputations on these animals."

Over the years many bats recovered from their injuries and were released, but some could not regain flight capacity. Gradually, these grounded bats formed a captive colony that occupied a room in French's house for more than eight years.

Little did she anticipate that caring for the bats would become another full-time job. After returning from work every day she spends up to eight hours tending to her colony: feeding, cleaning, and laundering the bats' "sleeping bags."

Mexican free-tailed bats are picky animals and difficult to keep in captivity. Their mouths are designed to catch insects in flight not to pick them out of a dish. Because many of the injured animals can no longer fly, French hand feeds the bats homemade "bug shakes"—blends of mealworms, human baby food, and vitamins—through a syringe.

"She has a great talent for working with the bats and maintaining a captive colony which is not easy—that takes a tremendous amount of time and loving care, which professors often don't have," said Brock Fenton, a behavioral zoologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who specializes in bat vocalization and Mexican free-tailed bat communication away from the roost.

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