As the days shorten and the weather grows cooler, many of us enjoy scaring ourselves and each other with stories about Halloween, ghosts, spiders and other creepy crawlies such as bats.
Bats have an undeserved reputation as blood sucking, dirty, ugly creatures that want to get tangled in your hair – in fact none of these things are true (at least with our Pennsylvania bats). While there are a few (3 out of over 1100) species of bat that use blood for food, they only make a small cut and lick about a teaspoon of blood from large animals such as cattle, they don’t turn into vampires, they don’t attack humans and they don’t drain their “victims”! They live primarily in Latin America and there are no vampire bats in Pennsylvania. Most of the remaining species of bats eat insects, fruit, nectar and pollen with a few eating fish and frogs. Bats serve an important purpose in our ecosystems by eating billions of tons of insects every summer, protecting both crops and people. Fruit bats play an important role in pollination and seed dispersal; over 95% of rain forest regrowth comes from seeds carried and spread by fruit bats.
Bats are mammals just like us and spend quite a bit of time grooming their lustrous silky fur so they are really very clean animals. Bats are not blind, although their sight is not well developed for a species that is primarily nocturnal like our Pennsylvania bats. Instead of sight they locate and catch their prey using echolocation. Bats don’t “carry” rabies any more than your family dog does, although they are capable of catching the disease just like any other mammal. Statistically, more people die from contact with household pets each year than have died from contact with bats in all of recorded history! If they do swoop near your head (which is pretty unlikely) they are most probably saving you from a mosquito bite as they catch and eat their insect meal. These shy, gentle and intelligent creatures are the only flying mammal in the world. They are among the slowest reproducing mammals usually having only one live young per year. Currently bat populations are in decline due to a fungus which causes White Nose Syndrome. This disease causes irritation in the bats, waking them from hibernation in the winter when there are no available food supplies causing them to starve. Scientists are working to overcome this problem but even so nearly half the bat species in the US are listed as rare, threatened or endangered.
So the next time you see bats swooping about in the summer dusk, say “thank you” as they reduce the mosquito population!