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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Festival to highlight bats’ environmental impact

This weekend, Gainesville residents will have a rare chance to get up close and personal with some furry, flying creatures.

The Lubee Bat Conservancy will host its 8th Annual Florida Bat Festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The free event is the only time of the year when the Conservancy is open to the public, according to Festival Coordinator Christy Field.

The festival, which is expected to draw more than 6,000 people, will feature live encounters with the conservancy’s fruit bats, as well as educational exhibits on bats and bat-themed activities for children, Field said.

“We just try to make it a lot of fun while trying to educate the largest amount of people about bats,” Field said.

Alachua Audubon, the Alachua County Master Gardeners and Alachua County Public Works will be presenting at the festival. Tampa Bay Bats, a division of the Florida Bat Conservancy, will provide additional bat education at the event.

The Conservancy, which is located on a 110-acre ranch at 1309 NW 192nd Ave., hosts the world’s largest collection of fruit bats, which are usually found in tropical areas. The bats, among the largest in the world, can have wingspans up to 5 feet long.

“To watch one of those bats open up its wings — it’s a really unique experience,” Field said.

Although the festival is occurring within days of Halloween, the conservancy will strive to separate bats from their “scary” reputation by stressing the importance of bats to the environment, Field said.

According to Field, fruit bats are critical to combating deforestation in tropical rainforests, acting as a pollinator for mango, guava and papaya trees. In Florida, native bats help control insect populations, including mosquitoes and agricultural pests.

“Studies have shown that bats in the United States save farmers between $3 (billion) and $20 billion a year on pesticides,” Conservancy director Brian Pope said.

Despite their benefits to the environment, bats face many challenges. According to Field, a majority of fruit bat species are either threatened or endangered, and bats in general are often seen as pests.

Pope said the conservancy will try to dispel misconceptions about bats at the festival, including the ideas that bats are blind, get caught in hair or often carry rabies.

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This year’s festival is tied into the 2011-2012 Year of the Bat, a global initiative to promote bat conservation and dispel misconceptions about bats. The initiative was declared by the United Nations in 2011, and is co-sponsored by the U.N. Environmental Programme and The Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats.

“It’s a global effort to really promote research and education to keep populations stable and stop misconceptions,” Field said.

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