Many old horror movies and tall tales portray bats as blood-thirsty creatures, all of whom carry rabies, that will intentionally fly into and get stuck in your hair. Let’s start there and bust some bat myths!
Indeed, while it’s true that a limited few species of bat, 3 out of over 1400 species, eat blood from other animals, bats around the world have hugely varied diets, including insects, frogs, fish, nectar, pollen, fruit, birds and even other bats. Researchers believe that the variety of bat species is associated with their ability to adapt to available food sources. Most bats in Texas are insectivorous. As such, bats can act as natural pest control. Researchers have estimated that bats save farmers billions of dollars in pesticide due to their appetite for bugs. So, more bats = fewer bothersome insects and more affordable produce!
Speaking of some of the ways bats benefit humans, bats provide economic services to people by providing opportunities for tourism. The Congress Avenue bridge in Austin is thought to bring millions of dollars in tourism to Austin each year.
For the gardeners, bat guano is a very effective fertilizer because it is so rich in nitrogen. It’s such a rich energy source that it is the basis of cave ecosystems that operate largely independent of the sun. If you want to use it at home, the rule of thumb is “one teaspoon per tomato plant”.
Next, it should be known that not all bats carry rabies. In fact, rabies is no more prevalent in bats than in other common urban animals, including foxes, raccoons and skunks. Many people mistake bats for rodents but they’re actually a unique group of mammals known as Chiroptera. They are mammals, just like us. Bats give birth to live young, feed their pups with milk, are warm-blooded, have furred bodies, and their wings are comprised of the same bones that form our arms and hands.
Interestingly, bats are the only flying mammal. Other mammals like flying squirrels can glide, which is little more than steerable falling. Bats, though, are capable of powered flight, meaning they can generate lift and speed by flapping their wings. With minute movements of their fingertips, bats can pull off impressive maneuvers, including flips, loops and high-speed turns while they chase down their prey.
Some myths have some grounding in reality. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bat biologist, Dr. Nate Fuller, recalls a story he heard from what he describes as “an old-timey bat guy”.
“It turns out that bats flying into hair is one of the weirdest myths in bat biology,” Fuller says. “Bats really aren’t interested in you. Sure, they may check you out and wonder what you’re doing in their home, but they don’t want anything from you.”
Fuller says that the story about bats in your hair comes from times long past when ladies would wear their hair up high and wrap them in fine nets. Meanwhile, hygiene wasn’t the best back then and smelly humans would attract bugs. Bugs would attract bats, and bats, confused by the acoustic image of hair in a net, would errantly crash into these towers of hair while chasing down a meal.
Bats vision isn’t as bad as you may think either. A bat’s vision is about as good as the average nocturnal animal, such as a raccoon or fox. However, their most effective sensory system is echolocation. Using high frequency calls and listening to the way these calls echo off objects, bats can sense their environment in extraordinary detail. Some species of bat can detect millimeter-sized changes in the environment, such as ripples on water surfaces. Researchers have also shown that the neurological pathways that provides echolocation information also translates the signals in color. So, while the colors aren’t the same that we may perceive, bats can effectively “see” color with echolocation.
You can learn more interesting bat facts, why humans need bats and how you can help bats at Bat Conservation International’s website.