Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulturist in Residence
Bats are important to ecological systems worldwide, their role. In our temperate region, they consume huge amounts of insects—up to their body weight in one night. A favorite food in this country is the corn earworm moth, which damages many commercial crops, from cotton to corn, artichokes to tomatoes and watermelons. One estimate is that bats save more than $3.7 billion in crop damage and reduced pesticide usage, in turn helping the environment.
From the tropical rain forests to deserts, bats pollinate a wide variety of crops and plants from bananas to peaches, carob to agave. They also help to disperse seeds, particularly in areas cleared of their rain forests for lumber. This has earned them the nickname “farmers of the tropics.”
That is the good news. The not so good news is that bat numbers are declining globally. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists 26 species as an imminent risk of extinction, 51 other species endangered, and 954 bat species vulnerable. Most of the reasons relate to human activity, a large reason being loss of forest habitat, particularly tropical rain forests.
In some Asian countries, bats are hunted for food or folk medicine. In Latin America and other areas, they are killed due to misplaced fears and inaccurate myths (such as them being vampires). As wind, energy and turbines have increased, so have their impact on bats. However, new technology has been developed and proven effective in keeping them away from turbines. Pesticides have killed off many of the insects they feed upon, and contaminated insects eaten by bats have killed many. Most recently in North America, the white nose syndrome disease has killed over 5.7 million bats.
Here are ten amazing bat facts to give you a better appreciation of this mammal:
- They have super hearing, using “echolocation” or reflected sound waves, similar to dolphins, to locate objects. Their “sonar” system makes high frequency sounds that bounce off objects, returning to them as an echo.
- Many have good night vision, so the phrase “blind as a bat” is not true.
- Some bats have an internal “compass” that uses the earth’s magnetic field to navigate.
- Some bats have “heat vision,” using specialized nose sensors to locate prey.
- Some desert bats are resistant to the most venomous scorpion stings.
- Bats are the only mammals capable of true and sustained flying, due to their webbed wings. Some bats can fly up to 60 miles per hour.
- They are the second largest group of mammals, only surpassed in species by rodents.
- Most bats only give birth to one “pup” at a time, which makes them vulnerable to losses and is one reason for declining numbers. Yet this makes sense since a pup can weigh up to one-third the mother’s weight. In the human context, imagine giving birth to a 40-pound baby.
- Bats are some of the most diverse animals on earth, their faces alone varying tremendously.
- Many bats sing as much as songbirds, with tunes similar and often more complex including rhythm, elaborate structures, and even rules for how they combine phrases.
Bat species can be placed into two groups—colonial bats that live in colonies, often around buildings, and solitary bats that typically live singly in tree foliage or under bark. Two species are most commonly found in much of our country, the little brown and big brown bats. Virtually all species in North America eat insects, and in huge amounts and all types including mosquitoes. The little brown bat on a good night can consume one-third of its body weight in only a half an hour.
Although bats mate in fall and spring, young are only born from May through July. The pups are ready to fly away within three weeks. Mothers do not live in nests, but all manner of protected places such as in buildings, behind chimneys, under bridges, in caves or tree hollows, and similar locations.
About the time of the first frost, bats start preparing for winter. Some species migrate short distances, others migrate 1,000 miles. Most species in North America hibernate, perhaps from October until May, flying about some during warm winter spells.
Sometimes bats can get inside buildings. You can learn how to deal with bat problems at the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management (www.icwdm.org). It is important to keep in mind that healthy bats do not normally attack humans, even if chased. There are some great tips on how to deal with such a situation, as well as what to do if you find an injured bat, from Barry’s Vermont Bat Center (www.vermontbatcenter.org). This site also has useful information on bat houses and links to sources and websites with plans to build your own.
Bat houses are flattened wood boxes, open on the bottom, with single or multiple roosting chambers with a height of 12 feet or more off the ground. The location (on buildings is best, but poles can be used), orientation (generally toward the east, away from prevailing winds and away from nearby trees), and color (black to absorb heat in cold climates) are all important considerations.
By learning the facts about bats—how they are useful and not dangerous, and what they need for habitats, you can help them to survive in your own landscape and locale. You will have many fewer insects with them around. Check out more details on them, bat houses, and how to help bats globally from Bat Conservation International (www.batcon.org).
Photo Credits: Vermont Bat Center and Vermont Fish and Wildlife