Naturalist Aims to Break Bad Rap on Bats
Early on, Dave Johnston began a love affair with the natural world. It later would turn into what some might call an obsession.
That obsession turned into a series of popular South Bay after dark nature hikes that explore the lives of the nocturnal creatures – bats.
Johnston traces his interest in these small mammals to his days as an undergraduate student of biology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo when he first encountered them, up close.
One September evening on Avila Beach, Johnston ventured into a shallow cave. There he watched a dozen bats roosting upside-down from the ceiling. He was stunned, yet enamored, by the gentle creatures and has studied them ever since.
Johnston, the son of a San Jose physician, spent his pre-school years living just below Stevens Creek Reservoir in Santa Clara County. At the age of 5, he already knew he wanted to be a naturalist. That same year he also moved into a newly built home in Saratoga, California, near Saratoga Creek. There Johnston played alongside tree frogs, trout and dragonflies, building dams and floating on rafts with his friends. While attending Saratoga Junior High School, Johnston spent time with Larry Moitozo at the time the Youth Science Institute (YSI) executive director. “He was my mentor, Johnston said. “He had a zest for the outdoors and a love of humanity. I learned a lot about natural history from him.”
Dave Johnston taught science for three years while a graduate student at San Jose State University.
After earning his master’s degree in biology, he taught at San Jose City College for a year. He signed on as executive director at YSI before becoming executive director at the Coyote Creek Riparian Station.
His bat treks date to 1992, and have been held at Alum Rock and Vasona parks. “I lead the bat hikes,” he explains, “because bats are the underdogs and their number is declining. And I truly enjoy showing people the bats, sharing what I know about them and debunking the myths.”
Dave Johnston in background, student in foreground, photo courtesy of Katie Reich.
Myths surrounding bats die hard. Many people still carry misconceptions about bats that began in Europe in Medieval times. Bats have been portrayed as evil beings synonymous with witches and vampires.
For instance, if women were found to have bats in their homes, they were burned as witches. Yet in some cultures, bats are valued. In China, for example, images of bats are painted on rice bowls for good luck.
There are 1,100 species of bats in the world, comprising one-fourth of all species of mammals. They’re mostly related to primates. Bats aren’t blind, although many rely on echolocation to find their way and to detect their prey. People fear they’ll get rabies from bats, but bats are gentle, non-aggressive creatures that seldom bite if left alone. As for vampire bats, they inhabit only Latin America. According to Bat Conservation International (BCI) of Austin, Texas, bats are a major contributor to rain forest regeneration and agriculture by dispersing seeds and pollinating plants.
But due to human fear and ignorance, their number is declining. Bats are hunted, killed, and eaten.
Their roosts are disturbed and destroyed. Many species are already extinct. More than half of the species in this country are endangered, or nearly so.
“I want to make people aware of their natural surroundings,” Johnston explains, “and see how science is relevant to their lives.”
He has put into place science education programs for disadvantaged youths, and led programs to demonstrate hands-on science teaching.
Besides leading the bat hikes, Johnston makes presentations on bats at churches, community centers and schools. “When I show schoolchildren the bats, they get excited and they say they’re so cute,” he said.
After getting his doctorate in biology with an emphasis in bat behavior, he taught science at Santa Clara University. He continues to do bat research and conduct surveys all over the world.
Currently, he is an associate wildlife ecologist at H.T. Harvey & Associates in San Jose, California. He is also involved in a long-term project on bats and has co-taught a workshop at Pinnacles National Monument. In the San Jose area, he has trained teachers and students to help with acoustic surveys to monitor bats at Coyote Creek.
This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, August 23, 1995.
Pinnacles Workshop, photo courtesy of Dave Johnston