Carlsbad Caverns National Park

About the Bats
Photo © Bat Conservation International : Leaf-nosed Bat
Leaf-nosed bat - North America (Merlin D. Tuttle Bat Conservation International)

The park's surface includes approximately 750 plant species, 331 species of birds, 64 species of mammals, and 44 reptiles and amphibians. Many species of plants and animals in the park are at the limits of their geographic distribution, including the northernmost colony of migratory cave swallows in the United States.

Carlsbad Cavern is the summer home for a world-famous colony of migratory Mexican free-tailed bats. The survival of the park's bat populations, which in some cases cross international borders, depends on our better understanding of their value, fragility, and place in the ecosystem.

The Bat Colony
According to local legend, around the turn of the 20th century, a young cowboy named Jim White found the cave entrance by following what he thought was a plume of smoke. Turns out that smoke was actually a column of Mexican free-tailed bats exiting the cave. Today visitors come to Carlsbad Caverns not only to tour the cave, but also in hopes of witnessing this incredible exodus just as Jim White did.

Research indicates that Mexican free-tailed bats have roosted in Carlsbad Caverns for more than 5,000 years. The population of the bat colony changes from season to season. It also changes daily, perhaps in response to conditions of drought or rain, food availability, or the life cycle of the bats. Research on the diet and activity level of the bats is ongoing and will help explain the causes of population change.

Help the Bats
You can help protect bats by adopting a bat at the visitor center in The Cavern Bookstore. All funds from the Adopt-A-Bat program are used to educate people about bats and to support bat research programs. (Sorry, you can't take your bat home with you.)

Loss of habitat is a serious problem for bats. You can help by putting a bat house in your yard. Pick up plans to build your own bat house at the visitor center information desk. Learn the truth about bats and help spread the word to others that bats are beneficial. You can learn more about bats by contacting BCI:

Bat Conservation International
P.O. Box 162603
Austin, Texas 78716

Checklist of Bats
Sixteen living species of bats have been found in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and one extinct species:

Big Free-tailed Bat (Nyctinomops macrotis)
Constantine's Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida constantinei)—extinct
Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana)
Pocketed Free-tailed Bat (Nyctinomops femorosacca)
Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus)
California Myotis (Myotis californicus)
Cave Myotis (Myotis velifer)
Fringed Myotis (Myotis thysanodes)
Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus)
Long-legged Myotis (Myotis volans)
Pallid Bat (Antrozous pallidus)
Red Bat (Lasiurus blossevillii)
Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans)
Townsend's Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii)
Western Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus hesperus)
Western Small-footed Myotis (Myotis ciliolabrum)
Yuma Myotis (Myotis yumanensis)

Cave Swallows
One of the most significant bird species in North America uses Carlsbad Cavern as a summer nesting home. The cave swallow, a close relative of the cliff swallow, can be seen during the warmer months nesting just inside the entrance to Carlsbad Cavern. The swallows provide entertainment for visitors by chattering, swooping, and making spectacular dives into and around the mouth of the cave.

Habitat and Range
The cave swallow is a regular summer resident of Mexico and Central America. Currently it is expanding its range northward into the United States. The primary nesting sites chosen by the birds are caves, however they sometimes occupy tunnels, bridges, and similar structures. Unlike the cliff swallow, the cave swallows' nest is not fully enclosed. Made of mud and debris, it is shaped like a small half-cup.

The summer colony at Carlsbad Cavern is one of the largest and northernmost colonies of swallows in the United States. A migratory species, the cave swallows usually arrive at Carlsbad Cavern in the early spring and depart for wintering grounds by late fall.

Cave swallows were first found nesting in undeveloped caves inthe Slaughter Canyon area in the 1950s. In 1966, two nesting pairs of cave swallows arrived at Carlsbad Cavern and made their nests just inside the entrance. Since then the population has gradually increased to more than 4,000 birds. Although the colony varies in size from year to year, it is the largest known colony of this species in the United States.

Each nest usually contains from two to five eggs, which are laid in mid-May. The young birds are old enough to fly in about six weeks. After reaching maturity the swallows appear to return to Carlsbad each summer for the rest of their lives.

The cave swallows share Carlsbad Cavern with the cave's large summer Mexican free-tailed bat colony. The bats, however, roost considerably further into the cave than the swallows. The birds are daytime flyers, feeding primarily on moths. Both colonies seem to coexist without difficulty.

A Continuing Study
Soon after the cave swallows began nesting inside Carlsbad Cavern, an extensive banding project was initiated. Its purpose is to learn more about the birds and research their winter range.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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