Going to Bat for Bats!
February 1, 2012

I’ve always been a big fan of the cinema. When I was young, I lived within walking distance of a small theater that allowed kids to see two films on Saturdays for $1.00. I spent many a weekend watching movies, mostly second-rate films, which seemed to both entertain me and transport me to another world. Lots of the movies shown were horror flicks---you know, the kind with scary giant aliens, frogs looking to take over the world, or low-flying bats looking to kill me by sucking my blood. I would either leave the theater laughing or shaking, looking forward to the next week’s attractions.  It seems kind of funny, now, that some of those things shook me to the core. After all, I’ve come to terms with green aliens, love frogs, and have become a passionate advocate of bats.

Bats, like my beloved pit bulls, are one of those misunderstood animals that I’m always trying to defend.  They aren’t what most people think they are: horrible, evil creatures looking to harm innocent people. On the contrary, bats are amazing animals who actually benefit people and are vital to a variety of ecosystems. Let me explain just how cool these little guys are by listing some of my favorite bat facts:

1.    Bats are the only true-flying mammals. Yes, it’s true. Don’t try to tell me about the flying squirrel, because those cute rascals are just gliders. Bats actually use their wings to fly, like birds and insects. The structure of their wings is very similar to our own hands, only they have very long fingers!

2.    Bats actually aren’t blind but have keen eyesight. But they use their keen sense of echolocation, like radar, to find food and move around at night. Echolocation works when bats emit a sound, which “bounces” off of different surfaces, like cave walls or trees, and is then picked up by the bat’s ears. That “echo” is what allows bats to move swiftly and with precision wherever they need to go.

3.    There are nine bat species living in New England and all of them only eat insects. Plain and simple! Furthermore, most bats around the world are insectivores or eat plants such as fruits, nectars, and pollen.  I don’t want to hear about bats who suck your blood or turn people into vampires---that’s just mythical nonsense that makes for scary books and horror films. The bats living in other parts of the world who do live off of the blood of animals take only a very small amount of blood (like mosquitoes who bite us!). As a matter of fact, bats eat so many insects that they can actually help us. If we didn’t have bats living near us, we’d have many more mosquitoes, flies, beetles, moths, and night-flying insects that we often consider pests because they can carry diseases and erode plants and crops. Biologists estimate that some bats in our area can eat between 600 and 1,000 insects in one hour alone! And, as if that isn’t enough, these little helpers of Mother Nature also help pollinate flowers and spread plant seeds.

4.    Most bats do not have rabies. Rabies is a highly infectious and often fatal disease usually spread to people through the bite of an infected animal. Like with many species of wildlife close to home, such as raccoons and skunks, we need to remind ourselves that our backyard friends can be carriers of rabies and therefore, we should never go near or touch wild animals, whether they appear to be sick or healthy. If you see an animal who looks sick, or appears to be dazed or unafraid of people, keep away and tell your parents or a trusted adult who can then call your city or town’s animal control officer or health department.

5.    The two most common types of bats in Massachusetts are the little brown bat and the large brown bat. These bats are also found throughout most of the United States, with the range of the little brown bat dipping into Mexico and Canada, as well. The little brown has a wing span of approximately 10 inches and can live for almost 40 years. The big brown has a wingspan over 16 inches, can live for 20 years, and is able to fly at speeds as fast as 40 miles per hour, making him one of the fastest bats in the world! Most bats live in dark places where they can tuck in or roost, such as caves, under bridges, tree hollows, and the eaves of roves. Little browns give birth to one baby and big browns give birth to one or two at a time. Like all mammals, bats nurse their young until the babies are mature enough to get food on their own. Until then, babies cling to their mothers, who fly with them, in search of food. Very cool!

6.    When it gets cold, little brown bats in our area may migrate to hibernation caves or mines in the western part of Massachusetts, upstate New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. There, they stay in a more protected environment and hibernate during the winter. Large brown bats, because they are just that—larger—can endure colder temperatures and may or may not migrate before hibernation.

Like many wildlife species, bats have suffered because of people encroaching on their world. Over-development of the land bats call home, the misuse of pesticides, pollution,  and the targeting of a much maligned and misunderstood species has at times placed populations of these mammals in peril.  But today, the biggest threat bats are facing is an often fatal disease called “WNS” or White-nose Syndrome. First discovered in 2006, WNS has killed millions of bats in Eastern U.S. and Canada, and has been rapidly moving west across the continent. WNS is named for a white fungus that settles on the faces and skin of infected bats. The disease causes bats to behave abnormally, disturbing hibernation, and causing bats to fly at unusual times during the day or in the cold when their food is not normally present. This causes them to use up stored body fat that normally keeps them healthy during the winter months. While many species of bats have been affected, smaller bats with less tolerance for the cold seem to be the most vulnerable. In some hibernation areas, almost entire populations have been wiped out. Some species of bats experiencing the rampage of this devastating disease were already previously threatened with extinction. So, quickly finding a plan to manage WNS is vital. Thankfully, there is significant private and public funding for research on WNS, with many scientists providing new information often. We all hope that a cure and plan is not too far off to help these great animals before it is too late.

What You Can Do:
1.    STAY AWAY FROM BAT HIBERNATION SITES. These animals are facing enough challenges without further disturbances from humans.
2.    READ. READ. READ. There is a ton of information about bats in books, newspapers, and on the internet. School reports and science projects about bats usually draw great interest, so dive in!
3.    EDUCATE OTHERS. Share your information with everyone and help educate people about the misunderstandings surrounding these unique animals. Bats need help from us more than ever before!

Learn More:

Bat Conservation International

Boston Globe.com

Massachusetts Audubon Society

National Geographic Society

Scientific American

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service