Bats reduce insect density and defoliation in temperate forests: An exclusion experiment

Elizabeth A. Beilke, Joy M. O'Keefe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bats suppress insect populations in agricultural ecosystems, yet the question of whether bats initiate trophic cascades in forests is mainly unexplored. We used a field experiment to test the hypothesis that insectivorous bats reduce defoliation through the top-down suppression of forest-defoliating insects. We excluded bats from 20 large, subcanopy forest plots (opened daily to allow birds access), each paired with an experimental control plot, during three summers between 2018 and 2020 in the central hardwood region of the United States. We monitored leaf area changes and insect density for nine to 10 oak or hickory seedlings per plot. Insect density was three times greater on seedlings in bat-excluded versus control plots. Additionally, seedling defoliation was five times greater with bats excluded, and bats' impact on defoliation was three times greater for oaks than for hickories. We show that insectivorous bats drive top-down trophic cascades, play an integral role in forest ecosystems, and may ultimately influence forest health, structure, and composition. This work demonstrates insectivorous bats' ecological and economic value and the importance of conserving this highly imperiled group of predators.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3903
Issue number2
Early online dateOct 30 2022
StatePublished - Feb 2023


  • bats
  • trophic cascades
  • oaks
  • insects
  • insectivory
  • hickories
  • forests
  • exclosure
  • ecosystem services
  • defoliation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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