I HAVE TO ADMIT, before I started this Bat-Man project, 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 what they look like, and I know they are mostly nocturnal, meaning they are usually active at night. However, when I really started to learn more about bats, I suddenly realized what I know about bats isn’t really that much. When people started to ask me details about their lives, my answer was “sorry, I don’t know…” Therefore, now, spending my night (after finishing my Biostatistics homework) to research and write about bats has become my new routine.
I realize maybe I am not the only one who doesn’t know much about bats. Therefore, in this introduction page, 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 because of other more “important” things, say, going to Starbucks or having dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. And, of course, I want to tell you what my Bat-Man project is about.
Bats are the only mammals that can fly.
Here by “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 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.
Although 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 bats 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 for a long time.
“I dreamt I was trapped in a foggy, humid, dark cave where, all of the sudden, all these bats came out and started to suck my blood; I woke up panicking and almost cried.” It wouldn’t surprise me if such conservation happens in the morning office, where one person is vividly describing their nightmare to their colleagues. However, are bats really as wicked as people rumor? Or do bats really eat animals? Actually, they do not—no other mammals are as misjudged 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, and vampire bats, which feed on blood, eats 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 someone being attacked by his or her 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 important for humans.
All of the bats that inhabit the United Sates are microbats that ONLY eat insects. With that said, bats make good neighbors! Bats, as the primary predator for night flying insects, and majestically forage for insects humans find problematic. The June bugs we see tearing apart tree leafs, the cucumber beetles that harm our cucumbers and muskmelons crops, stinkbugs that are piercing the skin of fruits in order to feed, leafhoppers that are puncturing and sucking plant juices, mosquitos that are roaming around your house and trying to suck out your blood, and countless other notorious pests to human 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 good neighbors, 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 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 like a roller coaster because of white nose syndrome (WNS), a bat disease cause by a fungus named Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a fungus species that originated in Europe. “Destructans” means “destroying”, and as its name indicates, this fungus has been destroying population harshly. Since the first discovery of WNS in Upstate New York in February 2006, WNS has spread across 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.
What is my Bat-Man project about?
After doing more and more research on bats, I started to answer myself, “Oh man, there’s a lot to know about bats than shown in the Batman movies!” And I have no doubt many people, like me, might have the same feeling of wanting to learn more about these elusive, misunderstood creatures. Should we be concerned about bats being in ecological trouble? What can we do to prevent species from going extinct? There are also more basic questions, such as where do bats live—on a tree, in a tree hole, or in a nest like birds’? Are baby bats able to fly? How can I tell whether a bat is male or female? What should I do if a bat flies into my house? All basic questions may seem plain and simple, however, they would probably trick a candidate in “Jeopardy” because so few people actually know the answers.
The public’s lack of information of bats is exactly what propelled me to start this Bat-Man project. By studying, researching, and writing about bats, I want to present you with cool information about the social, cultural, and historic aspects about bats, tell you the interesting science behind bats, and more importantly, I want all of us to become Bat-Man to help save bats. I hope, after reading my blogs, you can assuredly tell your friends, bats won’t suck their blood when they start to complain about the bat nightmare they had last night, you can calmly handle a bat for your screaming, desperate neighbors whose house was just visited by a bat, you can proudly tell the person sitting next to you in a Friday-night bar, “Hey, do you know many Chinese believe bats are associated with luck among all cultures in the world?” and you can 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 I’d like to thank Dr. Salma Monani, Professor of Environmental Studies Department at Gettysburg College and an excellent science communicator, for offering me wisdom, encouragement, support, and guidance along my science communication journey. I also want to thank Dr. Alex Trillo, professor of the Biology Department at Gettysburg College and a devoted bat researcher, who offered me many inspirations and insights for this Bat-Man project, valuable connections to front-line bat researchers, as well as tremendous knowledge about bats. I also want to thank Gettysburg College for being so encouraging and supportive for students’ new ideas and projects and providing all the necessary assistance throughout my project. Last, I want to thank you, the readers, for your time to read my articles and your good intentions for helping save the bats.
Here’s to the bats!
1 Data from Bat Conservation International