Dec 05 , 2019
Bats, which are called and thought of as creepy, scary, and spooky, often get a bad rap. They’re an important species that impact our daily lives in ways we might not even realize. From pollinating our favorite fruits to eating pesky insects to inspiring medical marvels, bats are heroes of the night.
There are over 1,300 species of bats worldwide. Bats can be found on nearly every part of the planet except in extreme deserts and polar regions. The difference in size and shape are equally impressive. Bats range in size from the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (also called the Bumblebee Bat) that weighs less than a penny—making it the world’s smallest mammal—to the flying foxes, which can have a wingspan of up to six feet. The U.S. and Canada are home to about 45 species of bats and additional species are found in the U.S. territories in the Pacific and Caribbean.
Not all bats hibernate. Even though bears and bats are the two most well-known hibernators, not all bats spend their winter in caves. Some bat species like the spotted bat survive by migrating in search of food to warmer areas when it gets chilly.
Bats have few natural predators—disease is one of the biggest threat. Owls, hawks, and snakes eat bats, buy that’s nothing compared to the millions of bats dying from White-Nose Syndrome. The disease—named for a white fungus on the muzzle and wings of bats—affects hibernating bats and has been detected in 31 states and five Canadian provinces. More than 6.5 million bats have died so far from White-Nose Syndrome and scientists are working hard to better understand the disease.
Without bats, say goodbye to bananas, avocados, and mangoes. Over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination. Bats help spread seeds for nuts, figs, and cacao. Without bats, we also wouldn’t have plants like agave or the saguaro cactus.
Night insects have the most to fear from bats. Each night, bats can eat their body weight or more in insects, numbering in the thousands. And because bats eat so many insects—which have exoskeletons made of shinny material called chitin—some bat poop sparkles. This insect-heavy diet helps foresters and farmers protect their crops from pests.
Bats are the only flying mammal. While the flying squirrel can only glide for short distances, bats are true fliers. A bat’s wing resembles a modified human hand—imagine the skin between your fingers larger, thinner, and stretched. This flexible skin membrane that extends between each long finger bone and many movable joints make bats agile fliers.
Bats may be small, but they’re fast little creatures. How fast a bat flies depends on the species, but they can reach speeds over 100 miles per hour according to new research.
Conservation efforts are helping bat species recover. At least 13 types of U.S. bats are endangered, and more are threatened. These amazing animals face a multitude of threats including habitat loss and disease. A unique international conservation partnership in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico has been working to help one species, the lesser long-nose bat, recover to the point it can now be removed from the Endangered Species list. In 1988, there were thought to be fewer than 1,000 bats at the 14 known roosts range wide. There are now an estimated 200,000 bats at 75 roosts.
The longest-living bat is 41 years old. It’s said that the smaller the animal, the shorter its lifespan, but bats break that rule of longevity. Although most bats live less than 20 years in the wild, scientists have documented six species that live more than 30 years. In 2006, a tiny bat from Siberia set the world record at 41 years.
Like cats, bats clean themselves. Far from being dirty, bats spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Some, like the Colonial bat, even groom each other. Besides having sleek fur, cleaning also helps control parasites.
Baby bats are called pups, and a group of bats is called a colony. Like other mammals, mother bats feed their pups breastmilk, not insects. While bats only give birth to one baby per year, momma bats form nursery colonies in spring in caves, dead trees, and rock crevices.
Bats are inspiring medical marvels. About 80 medicines come from plants that rely on bats for their survival. While bats are not blind, studying how bats use echolocation has helped scientists develop navigational aids for the blind. Research on bats has also led to advances in vaccines.
Bats use echolocation. As stated above, bats are not blind—so the old saying of “blind as a bat” really doesn’t hold up. Bats use echolocation to navigate and find food in the dark. To echolocate, bats send out sound waves from the mouth or nose. When the sound waves hit an object they produce echoes. The echo bounces off the object and returns to the bats’ ears.