I HAVE TO ADMIT, before I start writing about bats, the last time I spent hours at night paying attention to a “bat” was me watching Batman vs. Superman while swallowing coke and popcorn.
I used to think I know bats well—I know they are mammals, I know they can fly, I know (at least to me) they look like mice, with wings, and I know they are mostly active at night. However, as I start to learn more about bats, I come to the conclusion that I don’t know them well.
Maybe, I realize, I am not the only one who doesn’t know much about bats. Therefore, in this post, I want to share with you something interesting about bats—something I used not to know about bats; something that, over the years, I have wondered about bats but never had time to find out. And, of course, I want to tell you more about my “Bat-Man Project”.
Bats are the only mammals that can fly.
Hereby “fly”, I mean the true, naturally sustained flight—not squirrels “flying” from one tree to another, not cats “flying” from balcony to the backyard, not the Wright brothers “flying” in their revolutionary flying machine four miles south of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. You might think bats have the same wings as birds’. In some sense, yes—they both have flattened forelimbs that form wings. However, unlike birds whose entire forelimbs are flattened to become wings, bats have evolved with only flattened hands. No wonder the scientists who know ancient Greek give bats such a catchy scientific name—“chiroptera,” meaning hand-wing. The fingers of bats are extremely long and spread-out and are covered with a thin membrane, forming a light, elastic, and strong webbed wings. Having the ability to fly means bats can enjoy the slice of pie in the food web that most mammals can’t share—the flying insects. So, next time you say, “early bird gets the food,” also keep in mind “flying bat” gets the food too!
Bats are the second largest order of mammals in the world.
Underrepresented by humans, bats are not a minority species. After rodents, bats are the largest order of mammals. Scientists have identified more than 1,300 species of bats1, which represents roughly twenty percent of all mammals species in the world. Of all the bat species, they can be roughly categorized into two types. One is the large fruit-eating megabats also known as the flying fox (another illustration of scientists’ rich imagination when naming species). The other type of bat is the much smaller microbat. Microbats feed on insects and have the echolocating ability—the ability to use sound to detect the environment, which their siblings, flying fox bats, lack.
Bats have been misunderstood by people.
Are bats really as wicked as people rumor? Or do bats really eat people? The truth is, they do not! No other mammals are as misjudged by humans as bats. Seventy percent of the bats in the world are exclusively insect-eaters, while the rest of them are mostly fruit-eaters. Only a few species of bats—such as fish-eating bats, which feed on fish, or vampire bats, which feed on blood—eat animals other than insects, and these bats are primarily distributed in South America. So, what is the chance of you being attacked by a bat? Probably the same as being attacked by your neighbor’s puppy—which is pretty low. And what is the chance of your blood being sucked by a bat? As rare as you winning the one-million-dollar Powerball, especially if you live in North America.
Bats are extremely beneficial for us.
All the bats that inhabit the United States are microbats that ONLY live on insects. With that said, bats make good neighbors! They, as the primary predator for night-flying insects, majestically forage for insects that humans find problematic. Such as, June bugs that tear apart tree leaves, cucumber beetles that harm our cucumbers and muskmelons crops, stinkbugs that pierce the skin of fruits, mosquitos that suck out your and your animals’ blood, and countless other harmful pests to our agriculture and health. The important role bats play in insect control is exactly what makes bats important for our agriculture and the ecosystem.
Bats are seriously threatened.
Despite being beneficial to our ecosystem, bats are at risk from humans. The population of bats is declining globally because of severe disruption to bat habitats—26 bat species have been listed “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning they face the imminent threat of extinction in wild1. Along with these “Critically Endangered” bat species are fifty-one others that are “Endangered”, and with 954 bat species that are considered “Vulnerable”1. That’s (26 + 51 + 954)/1240 = 83%! More than eighty percent of the entire bat species are being threatened!
Here in North America, the bat population has dropped drastically because of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a bat disease caused by a European-origin fungus named Pseudogymnoascus destructans. In Latin, “Destructans” means “destroying”, and as its name indicates, this fungus has been destroying the bat population harshly. Since the first discovery of WNS in Upstate New York in February 2006, WNS has spread across the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada, wiping out over 5.7 million of the bat population in North America1. The cure for WNS is still a mystery.
And Finally…About my “Bat-Man Project”.
The public’s lack of information about bats propelled me to start this Bat-Man project. By studying, researching, and writing about bats, I want to educate people on the social, cultural, and historical aspects about bats, as well as the interesting science behind bats. Most importantly, I want all of us to help save bats. I hope many of you, after reading my blogs, can assuredly tell your friends that bats won’t attack them, can calmly handle a bat when she visits your home, can tell people the fun fact that only Chinese culture is believed to associate bats with good luck among all cultures in the world. And can, if you want, spend a weekend afternoon teaching your children how to build a bat house and hang one in your backyard.
After all, we are the people who must save the bat!
Here’s to the bats!
1 Data from Bat Conservation International