Ask someone what animal they are afraid of, and you run a pretty good chance they will say bats. Why not? They are mean and bite people. Right? Well, no. Actually, they are pretty awesome.
Myth 1: All bats have rabies.
Truth: Less than 1% of bats carry rabies1. However, it is not safe to handle any wild animal.
Myth 2: Bats attack people and get tangled in their hair.
Truth: Bats do not attack people. They are afraid of us and do their best to avoid us1. If you are bitten, as with any animal bite, seek medical attention.
Myth 3: Bats are pests.
Truth: Bats are essential to the ecosystems. They help us by reducing insect numbers (Figure 2). In fact, a single bat can potentially consume 2,000-6,000 insects each night1. J.O. Whitaker found in 1995 that a colony of only 150 Big Brown Bats can eat almost 1.3 million pests every year2. Wow! Other bats pollinate flowers, and others eat fruit and disperse the seeds1.
Let’s look a little closer at these amazing animals. There are more than 1300 species worldwide. That is almost a quarter of all mammal species1, and new ones are still being discovered! Contrary to popular belief, they are not rats with wings. In fact, they are more closely related to us than to rats3. Unlike mice and rats, bats can live a very long time for their size. The oldest bat on record so far is 41 years old1. Since they are mammals, they feed their babies milk. Many bats give birth to one pup a year (Figure 3), but some species have up to three pups at a time.
Our bats in Illinois and the surrounding states eat insects. You may know that bats use echolocation to find and catch bugs, but do you know how it works? They make a very loud high frequency call (up to 110kHz), and then they listen for the returning echoes4 (Video 1) Depending on whether they are checking their surroundings, approaching an insect or something else interesting, or catching an insect, they will make slightly different calls. Calls can vary according to species and are tailored to the environment and prey type they hunt. When they are not hunting, they may make social calls to communicate with each other. Some species are incredibly social while others remain solitary most of the time.
The bat in the video is catching an insect in a lab. Its echolocation calls were recorded and brought into a range that we can hear. As you listen, you will hear it making a rhythmic “cheep, cheep” call as it searches its surroundings. As it catches the insect, you hear what is called a feeding buzz. This gives the bat more detail about what it is catching and the bug’s movements.
Since our local bats eat insects, what do they do in the winter when it is too cold for bugs to be out? In winter, they will either hibernate or migrate. Yes, I said migrate. The Eastern Red, Hoary, and Silver-haired bats (Figure 4) are all long-distance migratory bats that are capable of flying from Canada all the way to the southern U.S. Some of the other bats of the Midwest include the Gray Bat (endangered), Indiana Bat (endangered), Big Brown Bat, Little Brown Bat, Eastern Small-footed Myotis and Northern Long-eared Bat (threatened)5 (Figure 5).
All of these bats are affected by an invasive fungal disease called White-nose Syndrome (WNS) (Figure 6), especially the Little Brown Bat. The Eastern Red and Silver-haired bat have been found with the fungus, but it is not evident yet if the species is under threat by the disease3. WNS has killed at least 5.7 million bats since 2006, and some colonies suffer 100% mortality.
To learn more and see a map of its spread across North America visit Bat Conservation International’s Introduction to White-nose Syndrome and the Organization for Bat Conservation’s page on White-Nose Syndrome. As doom and gloom as WNS has been, we now have a glimmer of hope. Seventy-five bats were recently treated for WNS and successfully released in Missouri. Read more about these bats in the Nature Conservatory’s blog post, Bananas to Bats: The Science Behind the First Bats Successfully Treated for White-Nose Syndrome.
Other threats to bats include, but are not limited to climate change, habitat destruction, human persecution and wind energy development. There are many ways we can help bats. For those of you who love cave exploring, help prevent WNS from spreading by decontaminating your gear before and after entering a cave/mine. (Read information on how to decontaminate your gear.) Also, be respectful of cave/mine closings. These are done to help protect vulnerable hibernation or maternity roosts.
You can also help by purchasing or building a bat house (Figure 7). Having a bat house can help keep them out of yours. As much as I love bats, they are not fun house guests. For information on purchasing or building one check out the following sites: www.batworld.org, www.batmanagement.com and www.batworld.org. If you use a company to remove the bats, please check to be sure that they do not simply kill them but remove and handle them in a humane way.
If you find a bat indoors or grounded outside, check out the following sites and learn the steps to safely help them: www.batworld.org or www.batconservation.org. Never ever handle a bat with bare hands. Please read this information carefully and take wise steps to ensure your safety and that of the bat. You don’t always know the full situation of the bat. It may be a mom with pups. It may be ill. If possible, contact a local wildlife rehabilitation center or rescuer to remove and help the bat. This is especially important if you think it may be injured, ill or a mother. In Missouri, you can call Missouri Bat Census at (573) 338-8670. You can also locate a rehabilitator near you by using Bat World’s Local Rescue web site.
Next post, we will have an exciting guest author, Rob Mies. He is the Founder and Director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. You may have seen him on shows like The Ellen Degeneres Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and others with his winged animal ambassadors. So please visit the blog again July 3 to hear about his amazing work.
- Organization for Bat Conservation. Web 3 June. 2015. http://www.batconservation.org/
- O. Whitaker. 1995. Food of the big brown bat Eptesicus fuscus from maternity colonies in Indiana and Illinois. American Midland Naturalist. 134: 346-360.
- Bat Conservation International. Web 3 June. 2015. http://www.batcon.org/
- Bat Conservation Trust. Web 3 June. 2015. http://www.bats.org.uk/pages/echolocation.html
- Environmental Conservation Online System. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Web 3 June. 2015. http://ecos.fws.gov/tess_public/pub/SpeciesReport.do?groups=A&listingType=L&mapstatus=1