My granddaughter, the same one who schooled me about moths, is now fascinated with bats. Among other things, I gave her a bat abode for her 8th birthday thinking she would keep her stuffed bats in it. (Yes, there really are bat “stuffies”!). When she unwrapped it, you would have thought she had received a priceless treasure. What surprised me even more though, was how excited her dad was about the gift. He immediately went outside and walked around the house to figure out where it would hang.
I’ve always been leery of bats, thinking that they were dangerous creatures that would attack without warning and instantly give me rabies. After watching the dad and daughter reactions, I figured I needed a bat lesson. She was once again happy to oblige — and I was once again blown away by her impromptu science lesson.
Bats are mammals, which means that they are warm-blooded and that they birth live young – usually just one each year. Baby bats are called pups. (She loved that fact) Bats are the only true mammal that can fly. They are night time animals and use echo-location to find their prey, which she explained to me in intricate detail. She also very seriously explained that without bats, we wouldn’t have bananas, avocados and lots more fruit because bats are the only pollinators.
Everything she told me seemed reasonable – until she declared bats to be pollinators. At that point, some adult research seemed to be in order. I couldn’t believe that those scary creatures could be essential to some of my favorite foods.
After delving into information provided by the Smithsonian, the World Wildlife Organization, the Nature Conservancy, Bat Conservation International and other environmental organizations, I too am a bat enthusiast, determined to spread the word about these unique creatures.
There are more than 1,300 species of bats around the world, but only about 40 of them are native to the United States. Some species are so tiny that they weigh less than a penny. At the other end of the spectrum are bats with wingspreads of six feet and weight of about 3 pounds. Most of our common bats have a 10 inch wingspan and weigh only about 6 ounces, definitely much smaller than we imagine them to be! They are social creatures, living together in colonies. Bats are known to rest together, play together and even argue with one another.
Although bats are found throughout the entire country, they are most common in the southwest because of the warmer climate conditions. Bats in other parts of the country hibernate in caves, trees, abandoned buildings and other sheltered places during cold weather. If winter temperatures warm unexpectedly or if the bats are disturbed by humans, some will come out of hibernation, search unsuccessfully for food and unfortunately die.
Regardless of where they live, bats are nocturnal creatures. As dusk approaches, bats become active, usually flying first within their “safe” area and then emerging to find food and water. The vast majority of American bats are insectivores, with a taste for lots of mosquitoes, beetles and moths. In fact, the average bat can eat up to 1200 unwanted insects an hour. Their pest control service saves the U.S. agricultural industry almost 4 BILLION dollars a year. Insect-eating bats use echo-location as a hunting tool. They send out a high-pitched sound that bounces off of surrounding objects, including insects .As the sound bounces back to the bat’s large ears, it forms what can be thought of as an audible map, showing not just the location but also the shape of the object and the distance to it. The bat immediately instantly analyzes the information. Unsuspecting insects don’t stand a chance.
While most bats are insectivores, some prefer nectar and fruit for their evening meals. Nectar feeding bats pollinate night blooming plants. In our more tropical areas, bats not only pollinate fruit crops such as wild bananas, mangoes and guavas, but also flower and timber species. Their bodies, which are hairy, are uniquely suited to carry pollen from one plant to another as they feed throughout the night. Fruit eating bats, frugivores, seek out figs, mangoes, dates and bananas. They are an essential source of seed-dispersal, especially in areas that have suffered deforestation.
The infamous vampire bat really does exist, but does not suck human blood. Blood-sucking bats are found in Northern Mexico as well as other Central and South American locations. Horses, cows, pigs and other mammals are their preferred food sources. The bites from blood sucking vampire bats do not directly kill their prey. Infections and parasites left by bats can weaken or in some cases, kill the animal.
Bats, I learned, are not vicious, aggressive or overtly rabid animals. Though they can carry rabies, a bite from either a skunk or fox has a higher incidence of infecting a human with rabies. Here in the United States, bat bites are extremely rare.
Like so many of our native plant and animal species, bats are in trouble. Over 15 species of bats are currently on our threatened or endangered list because of habitat loss, air, water and light pollution, overuse of pesticides, purposeful eradication and diseases; others are being considered.
I've learned that bats are vital to our environmental health and to our economy and that they need our help. Luckily, there are some easy ways to protect and encourage these essential creatures.
- Turn off unnecessary outdoor lighting. Bats function best in the dark.
- Keep areas in a natural state. They provide shelter and food.
- Reduce or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals. Bats can eat 3,000 insects in one night.
- Provide a bat box. Urban bats need housing assistance.
- Become a bat advocate. Help dispel myths about bats.
.I thought that I was giving my granddaughter a frivolous birthday gift that she would play with until the stage of “stuffies” passed. It turns out that she gave me a much more important gift that day – understanding of an oftentimes misunderstood animal. I can't thank her enough for educating me; now it’s our turn to educate others.