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A bat is seen flying over the open ocean for the first time ever

In an unprecedented discovery, scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) documented the first-ever sighting of a hoary bat over the open ocean, shocking scientists while shedding new light on the mysteries of nature and the unexpected journeys of terrestrial mammals.

This discovery came during a research cruise aimed at studying marine mammals and seabirds in the Humboldt Wind Energy Area, approximately 30 miles off Northern California’s coast.

This area is known for its potential in offshore energy development and, interestingly, is a region where hoary bats are frequently found deceased at land-based wind power facilities.

Hoary bat’s journey over open ocean

Will Kennerley, an OSU faculty research assistant and the first to spot the bat, alongside his colleagues, captured this rare moment and later detailed their observations in the Journal of North American Bat Research.

The sighting occurred under clear skies just after 1 p.m. on October 3, 2022, highlighting the bat’s robust and migratory nature.

“I have spent a lot of time at sea in all oceans of the world, and I’ve seen a lot of amazing things,” said Lisa Ballance, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. “A hoary bat was a first for all of us. It’s a reminder of the wonder of nature, and of its vulnerability.”

Unveiling the mystery of the hoary bat

Hoary bats are known for their impressive flying capabilities, migrating across North America from breeding to wintering areas.

Despite being regular visitors to places like the Farallon Islands near San Francisco and Bermuda, no records existed of a hoary bat being observed from a ship in North American offshore waters until this event.

The researchers aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, including Kennerley and marine ecologist Leigh Torres, were part of the MOSAIC Project, led by Ballance.

This four-year initiative aims to study the distributions and densities of seabirds and marine mammals around potential offshore wind energy areas.

Documenting the first open ocean bat sighting

The unexpected appearance of the hoary bat, flying between 5 and 10 meters above the ocean surface and nearing the vessel to within 50 meters, underscores the importance of field research in revealing unforeseen aspects of wildlife behavior.

Kennerley, who photographed the bat, remarked on the significance of such unexpected findings.

“We of course didn’t set out to look for bats at sea, but this demonstrates the value of having observers out on the water ready and able to document unexpected observations like this,” said Kennerley. “I think surprises like this are one of the most exciting parts of doing science.”

The sighting raises concerns about the hoary bat’s future, especially considering a 2019 study led by OSU-Cascades indicating a decline in its population in the Pacific Northwest.

High flyers: Migratory might of the hoary bat

Bats play crucial roles in ecosystems worldwide, offering services such as pollination, pest control, and seed dispersion. However, they face significant threats from wind energy production and diseases like white-nose syndrome.

Wind turbines, for example, can cause fatal injuries to bats through collision and barotrauma, a condition resulting from rapid atmospheric pressure changes.

This sighting within a leased offshore wind energy area emphasizes the need for further research on the potential risks offshore environments pose to bats.

“Our study only documents a single individual but nonetheless suggests a greater need for studies looking at threats bats may face at sea,” Kennerley concluded, highlighting the importance of continued monitoring and research.

Protecting bats from the open ocean

In summary, the unexpected sighting of a hoary bat flying over the open ocean not only underscores the boundless wonders of the natural world, but also highlights the critical need for ongoing research and conservation efforts.

This remarkable discovery by the Oregon State University scientists aboard the R/V Pacific Storm propels us to reconsider our understanding of wildlife behaviors and the potential impacts of human activities, such as offshore wind energy development, on migratory species.

It serves as a vivid reminder of the interconnectedness of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and the importance of vigilance and curiosity in scientific exploration, urging us to protect these delicate balances for future generations.

The study, funded by the U.S. Departments of Energy and the Interior, was co-authored by Donald Solick of the Electric Power Research Institute and Vesper Bat Detection Services, along with OSU marine ecologist Rachael Orben.

More about hoary bats and the ocean

The hoary bat, a creature of the night skies, captivates with its distinctive frosted fur and widespread wings.

Known scientifically as Lasiurus cinereus, this species stands out as one of the most widespread bats in the Americas, yet it remains shrouded in mystery.

Dwelling primarily in woodlands and forests, hoary bats embark on remarkable migrations that showcase their incredible resilience and adaptability.

Features and habitat

Characterized by their striking grayish-brown fur with white tips, hoary bats embody a frosty appearance that sets them apart in the bat world.

They possess large, rounded ears and a wingspan that can reach up to 16 inches, making them adept fliers capable of long-distance travel.

These solitary creatures prefer the solitude of tree canopies, emerging at dusk to hunt for insects in a display of aerial agility.

Migration and behavior

Hoary bats are not just any nocturnal hunters; they are seasoned travelers, migrating across continents from their summer breeding grounds in the north to warmer southern or coastal wintering areas.

This migration highlights their unique role in ecosystems as pest controllers, managing insect populations wherever they go.

Unlike many bat species that hibernate in caves or mines, hoary bats find refuge in the leaves and branches of trees, even during their migration stops.

Conservation concerns

Despite their widespread presence, hoary bats face significant threats from habitat loss, wind turbines, and climate change.

Wind energy, while a renewable resource, poses a risk to these bats through collisions and barotrauma caused by the turbines.

Furthermore, the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease lethal to bats, adds to the conservation challenges. These threats underscore the importance of research and conservation strategies to ensure the hoary bat’s survival.

Calls for bat protection

The hoary bat’s journey through the night skies is a testament to nature’s wonders and complexities. As we uncover more about these elusive creatures, the need to protect them and their habitats becomes increasingly clear.

Conservation efforts must balance human development with the preservation of the natural world, ensuring that hoary bats continue to grace our skies for generations to come.

In essence, the hoary bat’s story is a reminder of our interconnectedness with nature and the critical role we play in safeguarding its diversity.

By fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for species like the hoary bat, we can inspire actions that contribute to the health and vibrancy of our planet’s ecosystems.

The full study was published in the Journal of North American Bat Research.


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