Scottsboro is home to the largest gray bat summer cave.


This story is part of a monthly series called External connectionswhich features stories that explore Alabama’s biodiversity and how we depend on it.

Travel to northeast Alabama in the summer to witness a natural phenomenon.

At the entrance to Sauta Cave, just off Highway 72 in Scottsboro, between 200,000 and 500,000 gray bats emerge to feast on insects.

It is believed to be the largest bat emergence east of the Mississippi River, a sight that draws curious people from across Alabama.

“I love doing anything that has to do with the outdoors and the weird Alabama stuff that you won’t find anywhere else,” said Valerie Hollingsworth of Trussville.

In early September, Hollingsworth and his family joined a handful of people on the viewing platform just in front of Sauta Cave.

“You can hear the tree frogs and the sun going down. You can smell the air as soon as you approach the cave. It’s about 20 degrees cooler,” Hollingsworth said.

Her 10-year-old daughter noticed a faint whiff of bat poop in the air, but that didn’t deter the excitement of the group as they waited for the show.

Shortly after sunset, they looked up at the sky as bats began filtering through the cave’s closed entrance.

The animals circled in the air, feasting on mosquitoes and moths.

Crowds gather to see the bats emerging from Sauta Cave in early September.

“It really is a natural phenomenon worth seeing at least once,” said wildlife biologist Nick Sharp. “They travel up to 30 miles in one night to hunt insects, and they may or may not return to Sauta Cave that night.”

Alabama is home to more than 6,000 caves, which attract bats with consistently cool temperatures and access to delicious insects.

Sauta Cave is particularly popular, with its large opening and location adjacent to the Tennessee River. It attracts hundreds of thousands of bats, which spend their summers roosting inside, clinging to walls and ceilings.

As cooler temperatures arrive, the flying mammals migrate to a nearby cave, Fern Cave, where they spend the fall and winter months hibernating with even more bats.

Sharp, who leads the Bat Monitoring and Conservation Project with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, calls Alabama the “heartland of gray bat territory.”

“We have the largest gray bat summer cave on the planet. This is Sauta’s cave. And we have the largest gray bat hibernaculum on the planet. It’s Fern Cave,” Sharp said.

Gray bats may seem plentiful on summer nights in Scottsboro, but the animals haven’t always thrived.

Partly because their cavernous homes are also popular among humans.

“Native Americans used caves long ago for habitation sites, ceremonial sites, resource extraction sites,” said Jan Simek, an archaeologist who has studied caves in the southeast.

Simek said Sauta was originally part of a Cherokee town called Sauti, which was established in the late 1700s.

There is evidence that the Cherokee chieftain Sequoyah often visited the town, raising the question of whether there might be writings of the Cherokee syllabary inside Sauta Cave.

“These caves were places where traditionalist Cherokees could record and emphasize aspects of their culture that they believed in. Sauta may well contain similar things,” Simek said.

In the early 1800s, the Cherokees leased the cave to European Americans, who used it for mining. They extracted potassium nitrate from bat poop, which they used to make gunpowder.

The activity continued for decades after Native Americans were driven from the land.

In the early 1900s, Sauta Cave was used as a nightclub, with a dance area established near the cave entrance to enjoy the fresh air. Years later, a developer planned to turn the cave into a tourist attraction.

“This is probably the most documented site in Jackson County historically,” said Scottsboro resident and Jackson County Historical Association member David Bradford.

Decades ago, Bradford and his wife explored Sauta Cave, crawling on their bellies through narrow passages to take photos and discover formations.

The couple have seen how centuries of human activity have taken their toll on the gray bat population.

“Apparently the bats went through everything,” Bradford said. “They were decimated when we saw them, literally decimated. But they recovered.

Gray bats emerging from Sauta Cave during an emergence count in summer.

Gray bats were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1973. A few years later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service purchased Sauta Cave and turned it into a national refuge.

Today people are not allowed to enter the cave, but they can watch the bats emerge from afar.

The best time to see the show is mid-summer shortly after sunset.

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