WHITEHALL — People have too many misconceptions about bats, and Tom Forwood aims to change that.
An interpretive guide at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, Forwood combines an animated enthusiasm for the flying critters with an infectious humor that makes his presentations about them rife with laughter.
Bats, or Chiroptera, are not blind, they are not as big as they seem and there are no vampire bats in Montana. Also, though there are several species of bats in the state, their incidence of rabies is very low.
“You’re more likely to get rabies from a cow (in Montana) than a bat,” Forwood told an audience of about a dozen people during a slide presentation Thursday night.
And though bats — the only mammals capable of true flight — may look like rodents with wings, they have opposable thumbs and are more closely related to people than mice, Forwood said.
Forwood also likes to note bats’ benefits to ecosystems and their place in history.
Montana’s bats feed primarily on bugs considered pests — mosquitos, beetles and moths.
They eat pine bark beetles responsible for killing forests throughout the Rocky Mountains, for example. And a single bat is known to eat thousands of mosquitos in a single night.
Guano – or bat droppings – is also high in nitrates and makes good fertilizer.
During World War II, Civilian Conservation Corps workers collected the cave’s nitrogen-rich bat excrement and used it to manufacture TNT, Forwood said.
“Our bats helped us fight” the war, he said, standing a bit taller.
After the slide show, the group hiked up a three-quarter-mile, paved trail to the entrance of the cave, taking in expansive views of the Jefferson River Valley at sunset.
After turning on lights inside the cavern and scouting the bat-viewing possibilities, Forwood returned to the group, including an excited 4-year-old boy, waiting at the mouth of the cavern.
There’s a Townsend big-eared bat hanging in a very visible spot, he said, excitedly. But it’s somewhat active so the group will need to be stealthily quiet.
“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” people said to one another as they entered the dimly lit cave.
Forwood shined his flashlight onto the small bat, its wings wrapped around its small, inverted body.
“It’s cute,” said Zane Downey, 4, of Whitehall.
Then the group descended 125 steps to a second room to see several more bats in torpor.
With temperatures in the 50s, it was too cold for the bats to fly and feed. So they were in a state of semi-hibernation to conserve energy, Forwood explained.
People emerged from the tour with an appreciation for the misunderstood mammal.
“It’s really an extraordinary world, the bat world,” said Linda Heisler-Clancy of Bozeman. “They’re more like us than I thought. They’re very gentle creatures.”
Jodi Hausen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2630.