Bat biologist Jennifer Reddell of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources unveils the African, straw-colored fruit bat named “Rafiki" in the library at Bartels Middle School on Friday.

NOAH VERNAU/Daily Register

Bartels Middle School students and staff learned as many bat facts as could be expected Friday when biologist Jennifer Reddell paid them a visit. For some attendees, they might have learned more than they needed to know.

“I don’t need to see it. I don’t,” Principal Tim Reuth joked about an hour before Reddell unveiled the straw-colored fruit bat named “Rafiki.” The large bat native to Africa was clearly the star of the show.

“There’s never a dull moment around here,” Reuth concluded.

Reddell is a bat biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Art teacher Charlotte Doro and technology education teacher Gerald Burr invited her to the school, the two teachers having collaborated on project that started small before taking flight.

Burr’s students created 32 bat boxes that were emblazoned with wood-burned designs by Doro’s art students. Those designs included owls, deer, wolves, eagles, falling leaves, squirrels — “anything nature-related in Wisconsin,” Doro said.

Bat boxes provide habitat in the summertime, while also helping bat biologists keep track of population numbers.

“I just wanted my students to make artwork they wouldn’t throw away,” Doro said.

Portage Lumber and Home Depot in Lake Delton provided materials to the joint project, which is now being used to raise funds for the art and technology education departments. The boxes are being sold to the public for $20 each. Only 11 were left as of Friday.

Inviting Reddell to the school was a way for students of the two departments to dive deeper into their creations, Doro said. Student feedback has been so strong the two departments will collaborate again in building, designing and selling bluebird and butterfly houses.

In the school’s library, Reddell talked about the importance of bats, their natural history and the worrisome disease called white-nose syndrome.

More than 1,200 species of bats exist in the world, making up one-fifth of all mammal species, she said.

They’re the only flying mammals in the world. They’re social animals that form colonies, nursing their pups until they’re old enough to fly.

Bats are helpful to humans as “pest consumers,” Reddell noted, eating up insects like mosquitoes. They’re also excellent pollinators and seed dispersers, aiding crops like mangoes, figs, avocados, papayas and cashews.

Misconceptions about bats abound. “In general — and we see this with a lot of wildlife, don’t we? — bats are seen as this secretive creature or something to be feared,” Reddell said. But less than half of 1 percent of bats are rabid, and when one of them is flying about in your home, you should remember it’s “just as frightened of you.”

White-nose syndrome is a big problem in the U.S., particularly in the eastern states, Reddell said. In some places, the decline of certain species ranges from 95 to 99 percent.

“Millions have died,” she said.

The fungal disease kills bats during their hibernation periods, and when it hits one case, “every cave in the region is affected” eventually.

Wisconsin has eight species of bats. Its four hibernating species are threatened with regional extinction: the big brown bat (the species Reddell also brought to the school with her, along with “Rafiki”), the little brown bat, the tricolored bat and the northern long-eared bat.

There is a “glimmer of hope” regarding the disease, she said. Surviving bats have demonstrated resistance to the disease, suggesting some genetic integrity that could eventually slow the disease down in the future.

Those interested in purchasing a bat box should call Doro at 608-742-2165, ext. 7598.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter