As a ranger naturalist at Phantom Ranger Station, I was amazed at how many people still believe the old wives’ tales of bats being blind and how they get tangled in your hair. And of course, bats are just flying rodents. Not true, not true! Bats are some of the most maligned creatures on earth. And you know what? You wouldn’t want an earth without bats inhabiting it. Some bats can eat as much as half their body weight in insects per night! That includes those nasty mosquitoes, biting gnats, and scorpions (see photo to the left). Bats consume many hundreds of thousands of tons of insects each year. In spite of this, bats are so misunderstood and unappreciated, they are severely endangered creatures.
People don’t tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings about bats when they see movies depicting Dracula as a vampire bat sucking some poor victim’s blood, but did you know that bats are extremely gentle? In fact, mother bats have been known to care for orphans, and some bats have even been seen sharing food with those less fortunate. Baby bats cling to their mother’s fur until they are literally too big to carry any longer, and then they are placed in a “bat nursery” until they are old enough to hunt for themselves.
Did you also know that bats are the only mammals to have evolved true flight? Their wings are actually similar to hands with a leathery membrane that stretches between their super long fingers and continues along the outer edge of their back legs. Another membrane extends from the inside of the hind legs to the tail. Along with flying with their mouth open to catch insects in mid-flight, the bat can use this hind membrane as a “insect net.”
I found an interesting tidbit of information about another use of the hind membrane. Most people know that bats hang upside down, but when a mother gives birth, she will hang head-up from the extended thumbs on her wings. When the infant emerges, she cups the hind membrane to catch it!
Many people are also under the impression that bats are dirty. On the contrary! After they’ve spent the night hunting and have returned to their roost, bats will spend as much as thirty minutes just cleaning themselves! And mothers, you don’t have to tell them to clean their ears! If they didn’t clean their ears, they would go hungry!
Yes, hungry. I’m sure you have seen photos of bats and have noticed how large their ears are. Their ears are EXTREMELY sensitive and necessary for flying at night and catching insects. You’ve probably heard about “bat radar” officially called “echolocation.” Bats issue a continuous stream of high-pitched sounds that start at the upper end of human hearing and go well beyond. You would be amazed at how noisy nature is if our ears were sensitive enough to hear everything going on around us! The sounds bounce off of the object (insect) and back to the bat, providing them with information of the location of dinner!
Bats are highly desirable neighbors. Unfortunately because their reproductive rate is the slowest of the world’s smaller mammals, with only one young produced annually, they are in extreme danger of becoming extinct. More than 50 percent of American bat species are in severe decline or are already listed as endangered.Without bats people use more chemical pesticides to kill insects, causing damage to whole ecosystems of other animal and plant species and harming human economies.We can all help by placing “bat houses” in our backyards and providing a sanctuary for bats. Instead of having one of those obnoxious “bug zappers”, encourage bats to live in your area. These little creatures are silent, maintenance-free, and don’t require a speck of electricity! And providing safe roosts for bats will help improve their chances for survival.
To learn more fascinating facts on bats, please check out the wonderful site of Bat Conservation International (BCI). BCI recently surveyed an important Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) cave in the Grand Canyon and advised the National Park Service on how to recover the cave’s dwindling bat colony by reducing human access and removing historic guano-mining equipment from the bats’ flight path. The information below is reprinted courtesy of BCI. For more information on BCI, please go to the bottom of this page.
Amazing Bat Trivia
- The world’s smallest mammal is the bumblebee bat of Thailand, weighing less than a penny.
- Giant flying foxes that live in Indonesia have wingspans of nearly six feet.
- The common little brown bat of North America is the world’s longest lived mammal for its size, with life-spans sometimes exceeding 32 years.
- Mexican free-tailed bats sometimes fly up to two miles high to feed or to catch tail-winds that carry them over long distances at speeds of more than 60 miles per hour.
- The pallid bat of western North America is immune to the stings of scorpions and even the seven-inch centipedes upon which it feeds.
- Fishing bats have echolocation so sophisticated that they can detect a minnow’s fin as fine as a human hair, protruding only two millimeters above a pond’s surface
- African heart-nosed bats can hear the footsteps of a beetle walking on sand from a distance of more than six feet.
- Red bats that live in tree foliage throughout most of North America can withstand body temperatures as low as 23 degrees F. during winter hibernation.
- Tiny woolly bats in West Africa live in the large webs of colonial spiders.
- The Honduran white bat is snow white with a yellow nose and ears. It cuts large leaves to make ‘tents” that protect its small colonies from jungle rains.
- Disk-winged bats of Latin America have adhesive disks on both wings and feet that enable them to live in unfurling banana leaves (or even walk up a window pane!).
- Frog-eating bats identify edible from poisonous frogs by listening to the mating calls of male frogs. Frogs counter by hiding and using short, difficult to locate calls.
- Vampire bats adopt orphans and have been known to risk their lives to share food with less fortunate roost-mates.
- Male epauletted bats have pouches in their shoulders which contain large, showy patches of white fur that they flash during courtship to attract mates.
- Mother Mexican free-tailed bats find and nurse their own young, even in huge colonies where many millions of babies cluster at up to 500 per square foot.
Important Bat Facts
- Nearly 1,000 kinds of bats account for almost a quarter of all mammal species, and most are highly beneficial.
- Worldwide, bats are an important natural enemies of night-flying insects.
- A single little brown bat can catch 1,200 mosquitoes-sized insects in just one hour.
- A colony of 150 big brown bats can protect local farmers from up to 33 million or more rootworms each summer.
- The 20 million Mexican free-tails from Bracken Cave, Texas eat approximately 200 tons of insects nightly.
- Tropical bats are key elements in rain forest ecosystems which rely on them to pollinate flowers and disperse seeds for countless trees and shrubs.
- In the wild, important agricultural plants, from bananas, breadfruit and mangoes to cashews, dates, and figs rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal.
- Tequila is produced from agave plants whose seed production drops to 1/3,000th of normal without bat pollinators.
- Desert ecosystems rely on nectar-feeding bats as primary pollinators of giant cacti, including the famous organ pipe and saguaro of Arizona.
- Bat droppings in caves support whole ecosystems of unique organisms, including bacteria useful in detoxifying wastes, improving detergents, and producing gasohol and antibiotics.
- An anticoagulant from vampire bat saliva may soon be used to treat human heart patients. Contrary to popular misconception, bats are not blind, do not become entangled in human hair, and seldom transmit disease to other animals or humans.
- All mammals can contract rabies; however, even the less than a half of one percent of bats that do, normally bite only in self-defense and pose little threat to people who do not handle them.
- Bats are exceptionally vulnerable to extinction, in part because they are the slowest reproducing mammals on earth for their size, most producing only one young annually.
- More than 50% of American bat species are in severe decline or already listed as endangered. Losses are occurring at alarming rates worldwide
- Loss of bats increases demand for chemical pesticides, can jeopardize whole ecosystems of other animal and plant species, and can harm human economies.
This information is reprinted with the generous permission of Bat Conservation International (BCI). For more information about bats, BATS magazine, or membership in BCI, please visit the BCI web site at or write or call:
Bat Conservation International
P.O. Box 162603
Austin, Texas 78716