Holy Hoary Bat, man

LIHUE — What’s fury like a fox, weighs as much as a mouse and leaves its roost in the trees only at night to consume 40 percent of its body weight in a feast of mosquitoes and other nocturnal bugs?

The Hawaiian Hoary Bat, an endangered species that may live only on the islands of Kauai, Maui and Hawaii in numbers estimated anywhere from just a few hundred to a few thousand in total. The bat first arrived on the islands 10,000 years ago after making an unlikely 2,500-mile journey from its North American origins. And now, this elusive night-flyer is about to earn a prestigious moniker for its rarity: The first official state land mammal.

Not that there’s much competition. The bat with the foot-long wings is Hawaii’s only native land mammal.

And so today Gov. David Ige is expected to sign into law a bill four years in the making that would bestow the bat with this one-of-a-kind designation. The goal is to recognize and raise awareness about the efforts to save this imperiled and uniquely Hawaiian critter, also known as the opeapea.

“The opeapea is worthy of the title of state land mammal because it has been here for so long, and faithfully provides free pest control services to us all,” said Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head, Kahala, Hawaii Kai, Oahu), who began championing the bill in 2011.

In his campaign to join the bat alongside the Kamehameha butterfly, nene goose, humpback whale, humuhumunukunukuapuaa and Hawaiian monk seal in the exclusive club of official state animals, the lawmaker printed shirts adorned with the fuzzy, winged creature’s likeness. At the end of each legislative session, when the bill died before reaching the governor’s desk, Slom redoubled his efforts and printed another line of bat shirts, culminating with this year’s first-ever women’s fit. Perhaps that’s what did the trick.

“As cute as some people think the seal is, I think our little bat is even cuter,” Slom said. “I think McDonald’s should be encouraged to include a little toy bat in their Happy Meals. People make light of this and think I have a lot of bats in the belfry, but the point is that this is important to draw more awareness to things that we take for granted in our environment.”

Over the years, legislative efforts to bolster the bat’s status caught the attention of scientists around the world, including representatives of The Nature Conservancy, who testified in support of the bill at public hearings held at the Capitol. They praised the bat as “truly a wonder.”

Here on Kauai, the bat is present on all three of Kauai National Wildlife Refuge Complex’s properties at Kilauea Point, Hanalei and Huleia. Kimberly Uyehara, refuge botanist, said the organization keeps records of all sightings, which typically occur at sunset when the bat takes flight to feed.

“We think it’s a great idea and I applaud the governor and Sen. Slom for recognizing that Hawaii needs a state mammal,” Uyehara said. “I hope it will generate interest in Hawaii’s lesser known creatures.”

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Brittany Lyte, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or blyte@thegardenisland.com.

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