As I stated in part 1, I became very interested in bats after having 2 encounters with rabid bats. I began reading all I could about them and learned that my lifelong belief that bats are horrid, scary, aggressive creatures who often bring disease to humans, couldn’t have been further from the truth. There are so many superstitions and myths associated with bats. I hope to dispel some of these myths by writing this.
Bats are mammals meaning they are warm-blooded, give birth to live young, have hair and nurse their young with their milk. Bats are the only mammals who can fly. The scientific name given to bats is Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing.” They are not like birds in that their wings do not have feathers. A bat’s wing is more like a hand with long fingers that are joined by a thin leathery skin. They even have little thumbs. There are two major groups of bats: 1) megachiroptera (or flying foxes) who mostly eat fruit and sip nectar (although some eat insects) and 2) microchiroptera, which are mostly insect eaters. Some species of microchiroptera eat fish, birds, reptiles, frogs and even other bats. One type of microchiroptera bat feeds on the blood of other animals. These are vampire bats which I will cover in part 3. There are over 1,000 kinds of bats. Bats are found all over the world, except in the polar regions– the Arctic and Antarctic. In North America, there are more than 40 different types of bats. Bats are nocturnal meaning they sleep during the day and are active at night.
There are many different types of bats. Some are large, some are very small, and they come in a variety of colors– red, brown, black, silver, yellow, and white. Some have long fur, some have short fur, and some are even hairless. Some bats have strange-looking facial skin flaps called nose leafs. The world’s smallest mammal is the bumblebee bat of Thailand and it weighs less than a penny. In contrast, some of the flying fox bats can have wingspans up to 6 feet! No doubt about it, bats are a very diverse group indeed!
How do bats get around in the dark?
Most of the insect-eating bats use an amazing system of sonar called echolocation. Echolocation is also used by dolphins. Here’s how it works. The bats emit a series of high-pitched clicking sounds that strike objects and return to the bat as echoes. By this echo, the bat can determine the object’s shape, location, and the speed at which it is moving. These echoes allow the bat to determine precisely where their prey is, even if it is as tiny as a gnat. The bats can use their wings to scoop up the insect and sometimes the tail membrane is used as a scoop also.
Bats that eat fruit depend on their eyesight and their sense of smell to find their food. It is probably a good thing that bats hunt in the night. That way, they don’t get competition from insect-eating birds (who are sleeping when bats are out hunting their prey). It’s also safer for bats because there are fewer predators out at night.
There are a lot of myths associated with bats. These myths have been passed down through the years, giving bats a bad name. Here are some of the most common myths.
Myth #1– Bats are blind. Most bats can see well. There are no blind species… all can see.
Myth #2– Bats are aggressive and like to get tangled in your hair. On the contrary, bats are very shy creatures and like to avoid humans if possible. They can find tiny insects in total darkness by echolocation, and in fact, can echolocate an object as small as a human hair! They are way too smart to fly into a human! Bats are shy and gentle creatures and if you leave them alone they will not attack and bite you. If a bat is hurt or sick and cornered, it will bite in self-defense, as most animals would. If a bat happens to get into your home, it is probably a lost youngster who is just as frightened as you are. Just open a door or window and the bat will use its echolocation to find its way out.
Myth #3– Bats are very dirty animals. Bats are very clean animals and groom themselves like cats. They have long claws and are known to comb their fur with these claws. I was mesmerized watching bats at our local zoo doing this. They were hanging upside down with one foot, and using the claws of the other foot to comb their fur. Bats keep their fur very clean.
Myth #4– Bats are nothing more than flying mice. Bats are NOT rodents but are mammals and are more closely related to primates and humans. And mice can’t fly!
Myth #5– All bats carry rabies. This is false! Bats can get rabies, like all mammals, but very few do. Less than 1% of bats are rabid. Remember bats are wild animals and if you come across one in the wild, you should never touch it. You can only get rabies through a bite from an infected animal. You don’t have anything to worry about if you never touch a bat. Bats who do contract rabies are non-aggressive and die quickly, so the chance of a human contracting rabies from a bat is very small.
Why are bats important?
Bats eat a great deal of insects, including mosquitoes. One species, the little brown bat which is most common bat in the United States, can consume up to 1,ooo mosquitoes in one hour. They can eat thousands and thousands of mosquitoes a night. The bats that live in Bracken Cave in Texas, eat as much as 250 tons of insects every night! When bat populations are endangered, insects pests multiply, and the results are devastating for both crops and humans. Fruit and nectar-eating bats are vital to the survival of rain forests. Bats carry pollen from flower to flower. Many of the world’s most economical crop plants depend on bats for pollination. Some of the more common plants are: bananas, figs, avocados, peaches, mangoes and dates. Bats are responsible for 95% of new tree growth in rain forests! Bat droppings, called guano, are mined from caves and used as a soil enriching fertilizer.
Most bats have only one baby per year. They do not give birth to litters like mice. This is another reason that it is so important to protect bats. They multiply very slowly. For their size, bats live an exceptionally long time–an average of about 30 years. Pregnant bats stay in special nursery caves where they give birth to their young. Male bats may roost nearby but they don’t stay in the nursery caves nor do they help with rearing the young. A baby bat is called a pup and is born naked and helpless. The mother bat has two nipples on its chest that it nurses the pup from. What fascinates me, is that a mother bat, returning to the nursery cave from hunting, is able to find her own baby out of thousands of other bat babies. They know which is their baby by its smell and unique voice.
Enemies of bats
Bats have natural predators. Snakes, owls, hawks, skunks and cats eat bats. But humans are by far the worse enemies of bats. People kill bats because they are plain and simply scared of them. They don’t realize how harmless and important they are. Sometimes people unknowingly kill bats by entering caves and disturbing them during their hibernation. Sadly, this often results in death for the bat. Pesticides people use kill bats as well as killing the insects bats eat. In some tropical countries, bats are hunted for food. Bat habitats are being destroyed by people… rain forests and caves and mines, which are essential for the survival of bats. Most people know very little about bats. Education is vital.
Bat Conservation International
Dr. Merlin Tuttle, an internationally recognized authority on bats, and an astounding bat photographer and researcher, founded Bat Conservation International (BCI) in 1982. BCI is an organization dedicated to saving bats and educating people about bats. Check out their website at http://www.batcon.org to see some incredibly beautiful photos and to read more about bats. BCI was very helpful to me a few years ago when I was involved in bat education in a local elementary school.
How can we help bats?
- We can help bats by getting educated about them. And then spread the word!
- Stay out of caves where bats are rearing their young or hibernating.
- Some people put bat houses in their yards to help protect bats. In turn, bats control the insect population. BCI has good information about bat houses on their website.
People need to learn that bats are not our enemies but our allies. They need to be treated with respect and kindness. Bats are very important to our world and they MUST be protected.