Fall means the time for thrills and chills as people bring out their spooky decorations in preparation for Halloween. One of the favorite and most common ‘spooky’ ornament seen around stores and haunted houses this time of year is the notorious bat. People’s fear of bats most likely started after the Count Dracula character emerged from the 1897 gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker, ironically named, Dracula. The book then came to life in theaters in 1931 as Bela Lugosi took on the role as Dracula, feeding on the blood of innocent victims. Since then the story has taken many paths, shapes, and sizes, but always has the common theme of depicting bats as this scary, creepy creature of the night that will feast on any living thing it can get its teeth into, although that is as far from the truth as can be.
The Truth About Bats
With over 1,300 species of bats that live worldwide today, and being the only mammal alive that can fly, bats should be recognized for their uniqueness and important role that they play in various environments. Many bats are amazing pollinators, and lots of people don’t realize that over 500 plant species depend partly and even wholly on bats to pollinate their flowers and spread their seeds including mango, banana, peaches, almonds, guava, and even agave (what is used to make tequila). From rainforests to desert climates, nectar-feeding bats are crucial to the survival of not only our favorite crops, but plants that are heavily relied on by other species and keep the ecosystem in a delicate balance. The legendary Baobab tree found throughout Africa are also known as the ‘tree of life’ and play an important role in not only in the ecosystem, but in native culture, are pollinated by none other than the straw-colored fruit bats.
Bats also act a major natural insect repellent and natural pest control. Being a nocturnal animal makes them the perfect predator to take care of pests like mosquitos, stink bugs, and others that prey on agricultural crops. It is estimated that some bats can eat more than 70% of their body weight in insects in just one night, which is estimated to add up to more than $3.7 billion worth of pest control each year in the U.S (Benefits of Bats, National Park Service). Mexican free-tailed bats play a huge role in protecting crops by eating agricultural pests like the corn earworm and cotton bollworm moths that would otherwise cause millions of dollars in damage to crops each year, as reported by Bat Conservation International (Roles of bats in our ecosystems, Bats Without Borders).
The bat that tends to incite fear in people though, is of course, the vampire bat. Found in Mexico and through Central and South America in tropical and subtropical environments, this species of bat rarely weighs in over a mere 2 ounces. While the fact that they survive solely on blood is definitely a little eerie, once you learn more about them and their adaptations, they tend to be a little less scary.
For example, vampire bats are believed to be the only species of bat in the world to ‘adopt’ another young bat if something happens to the mother. Not only that, but they have also been observed regurgitating blood to share with others that have not been able to feed in exchange for grooming. This species is unique in the fact that unlike other bats, they are able to walk, run, and even jump with their muscular hind legs and special thumb which help them approach their host without disturbing them. They feed on various sleeping mammals, with livestock such as pigs and cows being a large source of food. Contrary to movies and popular belief, vampire bats don’t actually suck blood. Instead, they make a small incision with their teeth and lap it with their tongue. The process does not usually hurt the animal, and in fact they are sometimes able to drink for up to 30 minutes without the animal even waking up! The instances of vampire bats biting a human are very rare, and they do everything they can to slip in and out without bothering a soul and be on their merry way after little night cap.
Why They Need Our Help
As listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 24 bat species are Critically Endangered, 53 are listed as Endangered, and 104 bat species are considered Vulnerable. Their story is similar to many animals on those lists with the biggest threat being human conflicts. Habitat loss is felt throughout the animal kingdom worldwide, and bats are no exception. Forests being cut down for agriculture, resources, urbanization, and more are destroying not only bat homes and roosting sites, but food sources as well.
Guano, or bat droppings, have been found to be a valuable fertilizer, and the process of collecting it usually includes intruding on bat roosts during the day when they are trying to rest and conserve energy for their nightly hunts for food. Along with disturbing them for their poop, tourism and people wanting to experience bat caves up close can have a large effect just to get a social media worthy picture. Many different bat species hibernate during the winter months, and if they are aroused and fly away out of fear, it can cause them to use up precious fat and energy needed for them to survive the cold months.
These issues along with misconceptions that cause people to kill them out of fear, hunting for meat, and extermination for being viewed as a ‘pest’ are all dangers that bats are facing all over the world.
What We Can Do
While it is so disheartening that species are disappearing due to humans being the problem, it also means that we can have the power to be the solution. Hopefully at this point there is a better understanding of our furry flying friends, and there is a drive to want to do what you can to aid in the survival of bats everywhere. Here are some simple way you can help be a part of the solution:
- Stay out of caves and mines where bats are known to hibernate. They need their beauty rest even more than we do.
- If you find a bat hanging on your porch or carport, let them be. They most likely ended up there by accident and just needing a place to rest and will be gone the next night.
- Become a bat advocate and citizen scientist. Contact your local wildlife agency to see how you can support conservation efforts. Some states have acoustic bat monitoring and summer bat roost monitoring and rely on volunteers to help collect data.
-Build a bat house! Many bats spend their summers in trees, under bridges, or even abandoned buildings where they will give birth and rear their young. With many of their natural roosting sites disappearing, building a bat house gives them a safe place to sleep and care for their young. Bat Conservation International provides amazing step by step instructions, along with tips to help you install your own bat house.
Don’t be afraid to get a little batty this halloween season and share what you know and love about bats to everyone you meet. Every step we take is a step toward creating a better world where all things can thrive.