People like me — those who spend their lives studying and observing wildlife — will frequently gravitate towards creatures that most folks find scary or bizarre. Most animal lovers would never list snakes, spiders, and vultures among their favorites. Yet we know that many of the world’s most unappreciated creatures are quite often the most fascinating. And at the top of that list would be one of the world’s most interesting mammals: bats.
Somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 bat species (depending on who’s counting) exist worldwide, and they account for about one in five of all living mammals. They can be found from North and South America to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. As many may not know, bats are the only mammals capable of powered flight.
Some species can live up to 30 years, and others can reach flying speeds of 60 mph. The Mexican free-tailed bat is capable of speeds up to 100 mph, making it the fastest mammal on earth. Bats range in size from the tiny bumblebee bat of Thailand that weighs less than a penny (making it the world’s smallest mammal) to the flying foxes, which can have wingspans of more than 5 feet. A few years ago, I had the privilege of entering a large enclosure at the Jersey Zoo on the Isle of Jersey that contained over 100 endangered Rodriquez Island fruit bats with their 3-foot wingspan. They climbed all over us as we fed them their favorite food, bananas.
Bats are almost exclusively nocturnal and are most active during twilight hours. Approximately half of all bat species use echolocation to find fast moving insects. The process of echolocation is very complex, but it is known that bats produce ultrasonic sound waves with their larynx or tongues. These waves travel forward and then bounce back from both animate and inanimate objects. When the returning echo reaches the bat’s ears, its brain analyzes the location and nature of the object. This helps it to identify not only insects but also dodge inanimate objects like trees and buildings. Because their calls have an ultrasonic frequency, humans are unable to hear it.
I would guess that most people develop a fear of bats at an early age due to the many movies and books that portray the horrors of the dreaded, blood-sucking vampire bat (and Count Dracula does this image no favors). There are only three blood-drinking bat species: the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat, all of which are native to southern North America and Central and South America. Of these, only the common vampire bat prefers to feed on grazing cows and the occasional human; the other two prefer the blood of birds. Vampire bats don’t actually suck blood; they use their teeth to slice an animal’s skin and then lap up the blood with their tongue.
Bats are actually very beneficial. More than 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including species of mango, banana, guava, and agave. The 14 bat species found in South Carolina feed almost exclusively on nocturnal insects like mosquitos but also on other crop and forest pests. According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, bats reduce the need for costly pesticides and save South Carolina’s agricultural industry more than $115 million annually in pest control expenditures.
Bats have adjusted to human populations and are some of the most successful animals living in the urban environment. Those who have experienced bats in the attic know that all too well. A quick internet search for “South Carolina bats” produces quite a few links to bat removal services. This is primarily due to concerns over bats carrying rabies. Actually, most bats don’t have rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control, even among bats submitted for rabies testing because they were weak, sick, or injured, only about 6 percent had rabies. Usually only one or two human rabies cases are caused by contact with a bat each year in the United States. Fortunately, people who are bitten by a rabid animal, including bats, can be successfully protected by receiving a rabies-specific vaccine.
The next time you’re outdoors on a warm summer evening, look up. That “bird” you see flitting around the night sky is almost certainly a bat. Using echolocation, it’s protecting you from mosquitos and other harmful insects and mostly likely pollinating and protecting crops as well.
One final, personal note. A number of years ago, I led an ecotourism safari to Kenya. One participating couple, long-time Columbia natives, referred to the setting African sun as “bull bat time,” the time when bats are first seen in the night sky and the time to enjoy an evening cocktail. Fascinating animals indeed.