What do the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Defense Forces have in common? Bats.
Yes, that’s right. A dozen species of these nocturnal flying mammals have made their summer home in a collection of abandoned army bunkers along the border with Jordan. And rather than shoo them away, the IDF and SPNI are working together to provide the ideal bat refuge.
This project was the brainchild of Israeli zoologist Eran Levin, who is currently in Tucson working on his post-doctoral studies at the University of Arizona’s department of entomology.
“Bats are fascinating creatures,” Levin says. “They are nocturnal, roost upside, down, migrate over thousands of miles, have advanced radar, live for decades and eat pesky insects. Yet we understand so little about them. They suffer unjustly from poor public relations. You could say that they’re victims of prejudice.”
In 2007, while conducting research on the migration patterns of greater mouse-tailed bats for his Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University, Levin began surveying caves and bunkers in the Jordan River Valley to learn more about where they stop to rest. He was amazed to find that an astounding variety of bats had colonized the underground bunkers, which have stood empty since Israel signed the peace treaty with Jordan in the mid-1990s.
“We found bats hanging from aging electric cables and assorted braces and shelves,” Levin says, because the metal ceilings of the bunkers were too slick for the bats to cling to. With the help of conservationists and the IDF, his team created bat-friendly surfaces where the animals could safely roost, using plaster mixed with gravel, plastic mesh, wood structures, ropes and lumpy layers of polyurethane foam. It took about three years for the team to convert 20 underground bunkers and bomb shelters into bat havens spanning about 60 miles between the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee and the northern edge of the Dead Sea.
The bat habitats provide excellent conditions that attract researchers from all over the world. But that’s not the only benefit they bring. Most of the bats that roost in the bunkers from May to October are insectivores. They venture out at night to feast on insects, just like the bats that make the underside of Tucson’s bridges their home for the summer. This helps farmers protect their crops from pests. “They don’t care about borders. They fly to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, so everybody benefits,” says Levin.
Levin will share the story of these man-made bat caves on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. His free presentation, “Israel’s Natural Defense Force,” is the Weintraub Israel Center’s first Gertrude and Fred Rosen memorial lecture. This lectureship is funded by Sidney M. Rosen and Frances Knowles in memory of their parents, to bring information about Israeli
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Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. She can be reached at nancy_ozeri @yahoo.com.