The college is turning the tricky discovery into an education treat by installing bat boxes to provide a new habitat for the animals and future research opportunities for students.
The renovation of historic Anderson Hall at Maryville College has revealed a massive colony of bats residing in the attic.
Construction crews began a $6.8 million renovation of Anderson Hall in June. The building is the oldest standing structure at Maryville College and stands as the iconic centerpiece of campus. The bell tower atop Anderson Hall is featured on the school's logo.
"Anderson Hall is symbolic of the Maryville College environment," said Dr. Drew Crain, a professor who teaches biology and wildlife photography at Maryville College. "We're talking just after the Civil War, we came over and built Anderson Hall. Every student on Maryville College at some time or another is in Anderson Hall. Alumni come back to campus and the one building they want to go back to is Anderson Hall, which is why this renovation is so important."
When crews began working where the bell tower tolls, they discovered the dark secret in the shadows of the attic and contacted Crain.
"I got my camera and we went into the attic. At first we didn't see anything, but as we kept going back into the darker recesses of the attic a really high-pitched, high frequency sound started being emitted. Clearly, we were in the presence of bats. You would shine the light up and there were 30 eyes looking back at us. Then you started going down and there were hundreds and hundreds of bats," said Crain.
Crain said the bats were entering the attic through the slats in the bell tower. The bats in the belfry are technically known as Big Brown Bats, a common species that can be observed up-close at the Knoxville Zoo. In the summer, female bats come together in colonies to develop and rear their young.
Those nursery colonies can typically range in size from half a dozen bats up to a couple of hundred animals. In the case of Anderson Hall, the estimate is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 of the airborne animals adopted the attic as their nocturnal nursery.
"We were walking beam to beam, and all of the bats were in that space looking straight down. Then I could hear the wing-beats as they were flying by me. I was getting pictures from every angle I could. As for the photos, the ones that stand out to me are some of the close-ups with the curling of the lips where you can actually see their teeth. Some people might say it looks ominous. I think it looks like them smiling down at me," said Crain.
Crain said there is reason to smile at the presence of bats because the animals are vitally important to the ecosystem.
"I always knew there were bats in Anderson Hall, although we never had any idea the magnitude in terms of the number of bats. But the animals were never causing any problems or getting into the offices. There's a lot of hype and mythology about the danger of bats. The bottom line is bats are really really ecologically important. An expert was called to make sure that the bats were not harmed when they were let out of the building," said Crain.
The timing of the relocation worked out well because it was close to the time of year when bats would normally leave Anderson Hall on their own to hibernate in the woods.
"A lot of bats migrate long distances, but Big Brown Bats will usually go a few dozen miles away. They are in small groups right now all around us and they are not hurting anyone," said Crain. "With the renovation of this 148 year old building, we really need to find them another home."
Hundreds of bats were evicted from Anderson Hall, but next summer the animals will search for a new location for their nursery colony to roost. Maryville College decided to create new homes more suitable for the animals and the campus.
"When you move bats out of where they live, they don't just go away. So we're providing them with a habitat with these new bat boxes," said Dr. Dave Unger, a biology professor at Maryville College. "Somewhere between 400 to 600 could potentially fit within one of these boxes, although once you get around 400 it is a really tight squeeze."
The boxes contain layers of wood with gaps between them for the bats to cling between. Unger said the tight spaces are just what bats want for their pups.
"When they come together, their body heat helps to regulate the proper development of the young. So that's why Anderson was so appealing because you've got these long rafters with this tight space that these bats can get into. That's what this [box] simulates," said Unger.
Maryville College bought a total of ten of the new bat boxes. They will be placed in the orchard and other wooded locations around campus away from residence halls and high-traffic areas. Unger said people have no reason to fear the creatures of the night.
"Bats are sort of classically regarded as being creepy. I mean, bats are the creepy thing at Halloween. They come out at dusk and go in at dawn and that's sort of the whole vampire thing. You don't have any vampire bats or anything like that flying around Tennessee. When you actually get one in hand, the other thing is they're really cute. They're a little mammal and they've got wings," said Unger.
Of course, the cute mammals may be creepy due to their very sharp smiles.
"Well, yeah. I mean, the whole like sharp teeth thing. It's just that they're insectivores so they have these sharpened teeth to catch and hold the insects," said Unger.
The sharp teeth are put to good use because nothing binges on bugs like bats.
"These remarkable animals are eating up to 2,000 to 3,000 insects a night. So if you have a colony of several hundred bats, they're consuming massive numbers of insects," said Unger.
"Think about a hundred of citronella candles around your porch or one bat. I'm going to take a bat any day of the week," said Crain.
The boxes give the bats a newly renovated home and the school a rare research lab for years to come. The school is investing roughly $6,000 for the entire project which will provide future research opportunities for students for years to come. The expense includes 10 bat boxes, poles, monitoring equipment, echolocation devices, and consulting with a bat specialist.
"Here's a living breathing teaching tool. This is just the beginning. The boxes are being placed in a way that there will be student research opportunities. We'll be able to provide all kinds of information to different agencies and do research. It will not happen overnight, though. It can take up to four years for bats to fully adopt these boxes as a new home. But we did a lot of research and chose a brand of box with a 90 percent success rate."
"I can't wait to see what the future holds for Anderson Hall with the renovation and the future for the bats," said Crain. "A future with the bats, but with bats being outside of Anderson Hall."
"The first time we see bats in these [boxes], I'm going to be so excited I'm going to just lose my mind," said Unger. "It's going to be like, 'We have bats! We have bats!' I think it will work. I really do. I'm really excited."
TWRA said people should not live in fear rabies with bat boxes in the neighborhood. Less than one half of one percent of Big Brown Bats carry the disease.
"People have literally demonized bats. Angels have the wings of a bird and demons have bat wings. The truth is they are so important to our environment and it is extremely rare that they cause problems for people," said Chris Ogle, a bat expert with TWRA. "If you get bats in your home or encounter one, just like any other wild animal you should not try to handle it yourself."