True Wonders of Nature
The largest of all bats, the gentle Golden-crowned Flying Fox dines only on fruit. During the day, it roosts in trees.
Behold the beautiful, marvelous bat who rids us of insects and pollinates our plants. Long maligned as a harbinger of evil and symbol of sorcery and darkness, this misunderstood little furry, flying mammal deserves a break. With Halloween upon us, it’s time to celebrate the bat and dismiss the myths that have followed it through millennia. What you thought you knew is probably wrong.
Kinds of Bats
There are more than 1,200 species of bats worldwide. Of those, only three are vampire bats, and they exist only in South and Central America. The tiny vampires don’t attack humans, and get their little blood fix only from animals such as cows.
Bats are not rodents, or as some people believe, flying mice, strange birds or Dracula in disguise. They are the only mammals capable of true, sustained flight, thanks to their remarkable wings. Made of a thin membrane that stretches between their fingers and attaches to their arms, hands, back and lower leg, they resemble an elongated human arm and hand.
Shy and gentle, they don’t attack humans, tangle in people’s hair or suck blood. They’re also very clean, and constantly groom themselves, much like cats.
Blind as a bat? Not likely. All bats can see very well. Insect-eating bats use their built-in sonar and echolocation to enhance their vision, navigate the dark, avoid obstacles and pursue their prey. Fruit and nectar bats have excellent vision to hone in on their food source.
The unfounded belief that all bats have rabies is not true. Less than one-half of one percent of bat populations carry the virus. It is not a naturally occurring disease in bats.
They come in all sizes, from the tiny bumblebee bat (Thailand), the smallest bat species, to the golden-crowned flying fox (Philippines). This fascinating gentle giant, with a wingspan approaching six feet and beautiful fox face, is a rare species that’s endangered.
Bats are found throughout the world, except the Arctic and Antarctic. They belong to the order Chiroptera, meaning hand wing, and are divided into two subgroups.
Megabats live in tropical climates and are major pollinators of fruit-and nectar-producing plants. These include blue agave, without which there would be no tequila. Next time you sip a margarita, thank the long-nosed bat.
Microbats are the small insect eaters that make up 70 percent of all bats. These prolific bug and pest exterminators are the most common in the U.S. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 47 species live in the U.S. and nine are listed as threatened or endangered.
The winged wonders are critically beneficial to agriculture. Studies on their economic value estimate that they provide nontoxic pest-control services totaling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year. Think about it: A colony of 25,000 bats can eat 625,000 pounds of insects in one night.
Where are they? In winter, they will hibernate for up to six months, or migrate to warmer climes. During long summer days, the nocturnal mammals roost almost anywhere—hanging around in trees, rocks, bridges and caves. This is also when females form maternity colonies and raise their young, usually one pup each year. They are the slowest reproducing mammals on earth.
The chances of seeing a bat chase mosquitos in your yard are slim. But there are places to see their amazing flights. For example, Texas—home to the greatest number of bat species in the U.S. and its famous bat colonies.
The largest urban bat colony in the world hangs out in downtown Austin under the Congress Avenue Bridge. On warm summer evenings after sunset, 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats emerge in dense serpentine columns and spiral upwards into the sky and over crop fields in search of insects.
But this is nothing compared to the Bracken Cave outside San Antonio, site of the largest known bat colony in the world. Here, 20 million free-tail bats emerge at dusk in a surreal, breathtaking display.
Closer to home, Colorado has its own famous bat cave in the abandoned Orient Mine near Saguache, where 250,000 Mexican free-tail bats spend the summer and fly out each evening. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 18 species of bats are known to live in our state.
Here in the Colorado Springs neighborhood, our very own Garden of the Gods has a busy bat population and offers guided evening bat walks from June-August. The bats are likely still around in September, but mark your calendars for next year.
A growing effort on the part of conservation programs, education and scientific studies is helping to dispel superstitions and blatantly false facts about these amazing and important animals. Not to mention bat fan clubs that are promoting a new bat-titude.
But the little winged mammals are fighting for survival. According to Bat Conservation International, white nose syndrome, the dreaded disease from Europe, is decimating hibernating bat populations by the millions across the U.S.
Still, the little wonders of nature persevere. They’re our friends. They do no harm. We should thank them.