Is It a Light Show or a Light Snack? For Las Vegas Bats, the Luxor Is Both

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a town known for its bountiful buffets, the most unusual one is staged at the Luxor Hotel-Casino, where freeloaders fly in for a feeding frenzy.

We're talking bats, at a bug buffet, served after sunset not inside the pyramid-shaped hotel, but above it, in its famous "sky beam."

The sight of hundreds, maybe thousands, of bats flying frenetically in a column of white light against the black sky is so dramatic that motorists sometimes pull off to the side of Interstate 15 to watch.

The bats--probably Brazilian free-tailed bats, with wingspans up to 10 inches, and smaller Western pipistrelles--have discovered the bane of any homeowner with a bright patio light.

And boy, does the Luxor have a light--the most powerful in the world, the Luxor boasts, bright enough to be seen on a clear night up to 250 miles away from an airplane at cruising altitude. So imagine how many bugs--mostly moths and beetles--are drawn to it.

Birds, including nighthawks, also belly up to the light beam buffet. But the bats are the headliners.

They come from all over town--from occasional roosts at the airport across the street, from beneath the tile roofs of nearby homes, even from as far as caves in Red Rock Canyon, about 20 miles away "as the bat flies," said Brett Riddle, a biology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas known on campus as the bat guy.

None are the notorious bloodsucking vampire bats, Riddle said. Those are found in South and Central America.

When winds buffet the buffet, the bats search elsewhere for food. But on still nights, the aerial battle among bats and bugs above the Luxor is a cloudy tornado of activity, extending as high as the eye can see.

Some people don't know what they're looking at until they draw closer. Rory Higgins, an interior decorator, thought the activity above the pyramid was paper debris caught in some sort of updraft. "Those are bats?" she asked incredulously. "That's trippy. Well, actually, it's kind of disgusting."

Steve Richardson, a local piano mover, said he recognized the bats but, from a distance, had thought the Luxor was trying to draw attention to itself. "At first I thought it was glitter, to make the light more reflective."

David Cheng, a financial manager from Hong Kong, said he didn't know what exactly he was looking at. "Well, they sort of look like bats, but they don't have bats in Las Vegas, do they?"

Riddle said a Luxor guest--an aviator--called him a few days ago, worried the bats might interfere with air traffic around McCarran International Airport.

A Federal Aviation Administration official said he hadn't heard of any problem. "The bats have their own radar, so maybe they're watching out for us," said Jerry Snyder, an FAA spokesman.

Bat droppings don't seem to be an issue for the glass-sided, sloping Luxor, Riddle said. Guano is so light, it probably blows clear. Besides, he added, bats will eat and then fly to their roosts to digest.

Luxor officials shrug off the bats as so much free entertainment.

"We don't have a position on the bats," said Luxor spokeswoman Hillary Bernstein. "It's just nature at work. Bats are attracted to bugs, bugs are attracted to light and we have the brightest light in the world. Go figure."

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