Tennessee's own batman
"You have to see it to believe it: a natural phenomenon that’s as remarkable as it is primal, a throwback to a time when Tennessee’s opulent backwoods teemed with wildlife.
We were huddled at twilight roughly eight feet above Nickajack Lake on an observation deck built by TVA. The wooden platform surrounded by aromatic cedars is located just off I-24 in Marion County at the Maple View Public Use Area. The deck faces the 140-feet wide by 50-feet tall rectangular entrance to Nickajack Cave, a gapping portal into the dark subterranean world beneath terra firma.
It was a hot summer’s evening. Kyle Waggener, senior naturalist from Chattanooga Nature Center, led the group and just as he predicted as night settled over the lake at about 9:05 p.m., the sky began to fill with thousands and thousands of gray bats. They flowed from the cave’s entrance like dark gray smoke from a fire. Nickajack is a nursery cave used by the species to birth and raise their young. The current summertime population inside the cave is estimated to be between 60,000 and 100,000.
“This is one of the great natural spectacles of our region,” declared naturalist Waggener. And it is wondrous to see, perhaps even miraculous, because with the spectacle comes the realization that just a few short years prior to our visit, the endangered gray bat had disappeared from the site completely. But the story of their triumphant return begins several decades earlier in a much smaller cave, many miles upstream.
A student of the world, Merlin Devere Tuttle was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1941. His father, a biology teacher who loved to travel, eventually moved his family to East Tennessee. As a teenager, Merlin attended Little Creek Academy in west Knox County and soon began to explore nearby Baloney Cave with his newfound high school friends. One mammal found inside the cave in particular intrigued the budding young biologist.
“I was fascinated by the bats,” remembers Tuttle...
For the rest of the article, check out the May/June issue of The Tennessee Conservationist for the feature I penned about the Volunteer State's own batman: Dr. Merlin Tuttle.
The article also details the story of his work with the gray bat, Myotis grisescens, and the species hopeful recovery.