As a wildlife biologist, Melynda Hickman has witnessed the nightly summer exodus of Mexican freetail bats from the Selman Bat Cave for the past 18 years.
The sight of hundreds of thousands of bats emerging from the cave and flying in clusters to hunt for insects in the sky continues to amaze her.
“When I see these bats coming out, I have never been able to find the words to express what it feels like,” said Hickman, a wildlife diversity biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Conservation. “It’s just been incredible for me professionally and personally.”
There are so many bats that it takes 45 minutes for all of them to leave the cave near Freedom. Hickman said there is evidence that the bats have been using the cave for more than a century.
The migratory bats use the Selman Bat Cave and three other gypsum caves in western Oklahoma as a maternity roost. The Mexican freetail bats are attracted to the area because of insects and the gypsum caves, Hickman said.
Radar shows the bats travel as much as 60 miles away from the cave during the night to feed on flying insects, Hickman said.
“They are not interested in people, just bugs,” said Hickman, noting that bat watchers have to be more wary of rattlesnakes in the area than bats.
The vast number of bats in the Selman Bat Cave combined with the gypsum causes the temperature to rise and hold heat. The cave essentially becomes a bat nursery, almost acting as an incubator for the pups during the breeding season.
The Selman Bat Cave, which is eight miles north of Alabaster Caverns State Park, is the only cave where the public can view the bats. The Wildlife Department bought 340 acres from rancher Betty Selman 20 years ago to preserve the bat cave.
“It will be protected for all time,” Hickman said.
Nineteen years ago, the Wildlife Department began offering the summer bat watches to the public, and it remains one of the state’s most unique outdoor events. There will be eight bat watches this summer over four consecutive weekends beginning July 11.
Only 75 people ages 8 and older are allowed to attend each night. Participants are chosen by a random drawing. They meet at Alabaster Caverns State Park and ride a bus to the Selman Bat Cave for the nightly viewing.
After it gets too dark to see the bats, participants can do some star gazing at the nearby Selman Living Laboratory Observatory, operated by the University of Central Oklahoma and the Starcreek Astronomical Society.
The deadline to apply for this summer’s bat watches is Friday.
Hickman said the Wildlife Department has to turn away between 300 and 600 people each year.
The behavior and flying patterns of Mexican freetail bats, which live an average of 13 to 15 years, vary nightly, she said.
Having studied the bats the past 18 years, Hickman said she is most impressed by their ability to learn and adapt.
“Their ability to learn allows them to live longer,” she said. “We will never know everything about the Mexican freetail bat. The more we think we begin to understand them, they throw us for a loop.”