By Laura Lane
When you think of bats does it send a shiver down your spine? These creatures of the night are often depicted as flying mice that swoop down and suck your blood. When you learn more about bats, however, you discover they aren’t scary. Bats are beautiful, and Halloween is the perfect time to learn about and celebrate these incredible animals.
“Bats are extraordinary, and most of them are really quite beautiful,” says DeeAnn Reeder, Associate Professor of Biology at Bucknell University. “They are unique. They are the only mammals that can fly.”
The Benefits of Bats
Around the world, bats play a critical role in keeping insect populations in balance. “They eat massive quantities of insects. One single big brown bat that is nursing will eat 110 percent of its body weight in insects every night,” Reeder says. “It would be like me eating 500 hamburgers every night.”
Insectivorous bats will eat mosquitoes, moths, beetles, flies, termites, and spiders. They also eat agricultural pests such as corn borers, cutworm moths, potato beetles, and grasshoppers. There are also fruit and nectar-feeding bats that pollinate flowers and carry the seeds of trees, plants, and shrubs. Some of these plants provide foods you probably like to eat, including bananas, mangos, cashews, dates, figs, saguaro, and agave. By carrying seeds, bats also help regrow burned forests.
Busting Bat Myths
Bats have gotten a bad rap, but, once you know the truth, these important creatures seem a lot less scary. Here are five common bat myths:
Myth #1: Bats are flying mice
Bats are not closely related to mice or other rodents at all, Reeder says. The only thing bats and mice have in common is that they are both mammals. Unlike mice, bats live very long lives, on average 20 to 30 years, females bear only one pup each year, and bats can fly.
Myth #2: Bats are blind
You’ve probably heard the expression “blind as a bat,” but bats actually have excellent eyesight, which makes sense given the fact that they hunt at night. Bats also use echolocation to find and capture prey. They emit sounds from their mouths and noses. These sounds bounce off objects and return to bats’ ears as echoes. The echoes tell bats the size, shape, speed, and direction of objects in their environment.
Myth #3: Bats will suck your blood
There are over one thousand species of bats, and only three species of vampire bats drink blood from prey. Two species take blood from birds, and one species drinks blood from larger mammals, including humans and livestock. Vampire bats live in Central and South America and are not found in the United States or Canada, Reeder says.
“By and large, bats are not aggressive and don’t attack humans,” she says.
Myth #4: All bats have rabies
Reeder says bats do not have higher rates of rabies than other wildlife species, but you should never hold or handle a bat. They are wild animals and need to be respected. It’s very stressful for bats when people hold them, and they will bite you to protect themselves.
Myth #5: Bats are pests that need to be eradicated
Given the incredibly important roles bats play in the natural world, they need to be protected, not harmed. If you discover a bat in your house, there are safe ways to remove it without killing it. Reeder says one of the best ways is to open all the windows and doors in your house and encourage the bat to fly out on its own. “A bat doesn’t want to be in your house either,” she says. “It will echolocate its way out.”
A Bat Crisis
Six million bats and counting have been killed by white-nose syndrome (WNS), according to Reeder. WNS is a fungal disease that kills insect-eating bats when they are hibernating in caves and mines. The microscopic fungus spores can easily attach to people’s clothing or shoes and be transported to different areas. As a result, Reeder says there are lots of caving moratoriums across the U.S. to stop people from spreading the disease. Since bats play a major role in keeping insect populations in check, biologists worry that the loss of bats will have significant consequences.
“In the context of white-nose syndrome, every single bat we have left is precious,” Reeder says.
How to Help Bats
One of the best ways you can help bats is to leave them alone. “It’s really important not to disturb bats that are hibernating,” Reeder says. Building a bat house is also a great way to give bats a safe place to roost. For information on how to install a bat house, visit Bat Conservation International’s website at www.batcon.org <http://www.batcon.org> . Finally, spread the word that bats aren’t scary- they are beautiful and important animals that need our help and protection.
To learn more about bats, check out these wonderful resources:
The Bat Scientists by Mary Kay Carson
Frequently Asked Questions About Bats by Rose Houk
Bat Conservation International: www.batcon.org <http://www.batcon.org>
Bats 4 Kids: www.bats4kids.org <http://www.bats4kids.org>
For the latest information on white-nose syndrome: http://whitenosesyndrome.org/
Bio: On a full moon canoe trip, Laura Lane and her family had the wonderful privilege of watching bats gracefully skim across the lake surface in search of their evening meals.