What is Your Favorite Animal?
Bats are one of our favorite animals and there are so many interesting bat facts and so many bat misperceptions. The world’s only flying mammal? Yep. Wait, bats are mammals? Not only are they mammals (meaning they have fur, nurse their young with milk and give birth to live pups), bats make up 20% of all mammals on the planet with over 1,200 species. But don’t flying squirrels, which are also mammals, fly? Not really, they glide from tree to tree, which is still pretty cool.
And do bats ever fly! A study (Nov 2016) clocked a Mexican free-tailed bat traveling at 100 mph. That is even faster than the fastest land mammal, the cheetah, which has been recorded at 75 miles per hour. And faster than the peregrine falcon which can dive bomb at 220 miles an hour going vertically but only flies at a mere 60 miles an hour.
Bats come in all sizes from the tiny bumblebee bat (weighing less than 0.07 oz. and measuring only 1 inch) to the giant golden-crowned flying fox with a wingspan of over 6 feet. They are either categorized as microbats eating mostly insects or megabats (also known as fruit bats) eating mostly fruit. Some bats also eat small mammals, birds, fish and the vampire bats (which are only found in South America) will feed on the blood of cattle.
One of the fairly unique features of bats is their use of echolocation to both navigate and find prey. They emit calls and listen for the echo coming back, which is very handy. Why? They are generally fly at night and of course, it is difficult to see. Bats along with a few birds, a species of shrew and dolphins/whales all use echolocation to navigate and communicate.
Bat Myths and the True Bat Facts
There are many misconceptions and myths surrounding bats.
So what are a few of these myths and what are the real bat facts? Here we go:
Myth 1: Bats get caught in your hair. No, they use echolocation to find insects, often swooping to catch a bug but avoiding a collision with you. They are not faintly interested in your hair.
Myth 2: Bats suck your blood. Well, out of 1,200 bat species, only 3 are vampire bats (all 3 are in Latin America) and they generally suck the blood of cattle, not humans.
Myth 3: All bats have rabies. Yes, some do carry rabies as do all mammals, but less than 1/2 of 1% of bats have rabies. The World Health Organization reports 99% of all deaths from rabies comes from dog bites. Only 1-2 people die a year from rabies from bat contact. However, if you find an injured bat or one in your house, be sure to call a local rescuer for instructions to prevent injury to you or the bat.
Myth 4: Bats are grotesque looking and wicked. Actually, they are quite cute, very gentle and smart creatures. The females are great mothers. They share their food when another bat is hungry and babysit young pups when the mom is out foraging.
Myth 5: Bats are creepy and have no purpose. Oh, but this is one of the biggest myths. Some bats can eat 1,000 mosquitos (and other flying insects) an hour, reducing the need for pesticides. Other bats (fruit bats) disperse seeds and pollinate a number of things we eat every day including avocados, bananas, and nuts. They also produce bat droppings called guano which is an amazing nitrogen-rich fertilizer (and no, you can’t get rabies from touching bat poop).
Why Should We Care About Bats?
Critical to our environment, bats pollinate over 500 tropical plants used for food and medicine. They help biodiversity by dispersing seeds through the forest. Think about mangoes, agave (the main ingredient in tequila), avocados, cocoa and bananas-all pollinated by these wonderful mammals. With their voracity for mosquitos (one bat can eat over 1,000 in an hour) and appetite for other insects including many that damage crops, we see why they are so vital to our ecosystem.
Without bats, the insect population would explode, many fruits and nuts would cease to exist, and ecosystems that rely on seed dispersal and pollination could collapse. Not a pretty thought. In fact, we believe bats are the most important mammal on our planet which is why we are motivated to protect them and inspire others to do the same.
Bat Populations are Declining Rapidly
Unfortunately, the task of protecting bats gets more and more difficult. Many bat species are being decimated by White-Nose Syndrome (a lethal fungus with no known cure). An estimated 6.7 million bats have been killed by the fast-spreading fungus as of 2011, which is the last published data we could find. It is found in 33 states in the US and 7 Canadian provinces. Lots of resources are being deployed to try and save the bats including closing off caves in which bats are known to hibernate to try and minimize the spread.
Bats are also being impacted by climate change, destruction of habitat, indiscriminate killing based on superstitions or misconceptions and one of the biggest killers, wind turbines. Find out what your electric utility is doing to prevent both bat and bird deaths from wind farms they operate. You might be surprised, both pleasantly and not so…
Both of us have grown to love bats over the years. We have seen them all over the world, most recently at Bracken Cave in Texas where we found the largest concentration of mammals in the world. And guess what? They were bats! Want to learn how it feels to be surrounded by 15-20 million bats flying out of a cave, then read our post “World’s Most Mammals?”.
We also saw bats in Costa Rica on our honeymoon where they live in palm fronds and in Dominica where we entered a sea cave to observe a very large bat colony. And we often see the bats on our nightly walk in Western North Carolina flying through our local park at dusk.
Inspired by these incredible creatures, Dale has carved sculptures of both microbats and flying foxes. His sculptures are definitely some of our favorites.
“Cliff Hanger”, a microbat carved from Virginia steatite, recently sold and 100% of the proceeds were donated to 2 bat organizations. One was Bat World Sanctuary who helped save hundreds of bats from drowning under the downtown bridges in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
What Can We do to Help Bats?
First, learn all the bat facts you can to reduce chiroptophobia which is the fear of bats (and a very cool word). Many people fear them because they worry about rabies and blood-sucking vampire bats. As we now know, less than 1/2 of 1% carry rabies and only 3 species (all in Latin America) suck blood and rarely from humans.
Second, have fun and build or buy bat houses for your yard. Think of bats as free, nontoxic pest control. Help save bat habitat in your community by planting bat-friendly gardens and avoid disturbing them in their natural habitat which often includes caves. Get involved in local conservation groups that protect bats. Most important, become a bat advocate and join us in spreading the word of all the wondrous things bats do for our planet. We love bats and hope you now do too!
To read about our experience at Bracken Cave, read our Field Notes: “World’s Most Mammals?”