October 2007

The Truth About Bats

Author: Paul deVere

While he wasn’t the first, Bram Stoker definitely was the guy who put a wooden stake through the heart of the vampire bat, and bats in general. Having the blood-sucking, very scary Count Dracula transform into a bat and escape into the night, well, there goes the neighborhood.

Of course if you wanted to pound a wooden stake through the heart of a vampire bat you need a very tiny hammer and a toothpick since the Desmodus rotundus is only about three inches long and weighs a hefty ounce and a half. It is also only one of a thousand-plus species of bats. True, its sole source of nutrition is blood, but the vampire bat prefers horses, cattle and pigs to humans. In fact, you really have to work at getting bitten by a bat. They’re very shy and you have to be very close, and you’ve got make it very, very angry—and scared. Even then, it would probably look for the nearest horse to get a meal.

Bats have been getting the short end of the stick, so to speak, for millennia. The Macedonians didn’t like them much back a few thousand years ago when bats represented the devil and death. Shakespeare didn’t help much when the Second Witch added “fur from the bat” into her “Double, double, toil and trouble” concoction. Then there was that 1999 Bats movie, starring Lou Diamond Phillips. (You last saw Lou on Psych, NUMB3RS or a rerun of Law & Order: SVU. He’d probably want you to forget Bats. See, a government experiment goes wrong, and bats have suddenly become intelligent, vicious, and omnivorous… Word has it that Bats may have inspired the movie industry with the concept, “Straight to DVD.”)

Heck, if you saw Batman Begins, you know even Bruce Wayne suffered from chiroptophobia (fear of bats) after being attacked by them when he was a kid.

Then there’s the hair thing: People (especially teenage girls) fear bats will get tangled up in their hair; and if the bat doesn’t kill them, it will certainly destroy their do. (It should be noted that teenage boys have taken advantage of this phobia, “saving” the young girls by holding them close, etc.) And what would Halloween be without bats somewhere in the background making those eerie, squeaking sounds?

Granted, bats are a little strange. They do sleep upside down. Also, unless you’re a bat fan, they get to be on the ugly, maybe even creepy side of Mother Nature’s fauna. They have all those little pointy teeth, strange ears and, in some species, look like rats with wings.

But it’s time someone set the record straight about the only mammals that can truly fly on their own. Oh yes, and they eat a bunch of bugs. Down in Austin, Texas, under Congress Avenue, is the largest urban bat colony in the world. The bridge’s underside is home to 1.5 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats that swoosh out into the twilight sky and devour 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects each night. Think Lowcountry. Think “no-see-ums.” Think mosquitoes. Think about animals (see above) who actually like to eat those little suckers. One little bat can eat 1,000 mosquito-size insects in one night!

Now for really important, very serious information about bats and how they help nature (and us): In the wild, who are the guys who are responsible for pollination of everything from bananas, breadfruit, and mangoes to cashews, dates and figs? How do the giant cacti, like the famous organ pipe and saguaro out in Arizona get pollinated? Our friends the bats. This is the part that is critical. As you might already know, tequila is produced from agave plants. Without bat pollinators, agave seed production drops to 1/3,000th of normal! There should be a plaque honoring the bat on the wall in every bar that serves Margaritas.

Then there are all those pretty impolite phrases we use in reference to bats, like, “You’re really batty!” And an older one, in reference to somebody who is really crazy, “She acts like she’s got bats in the belfry.” This is a reference to the seemingly erratic patterns in which bats fly. Erratic? Most bats use something called echolocation to find food and avoid predators, such as owls. That high-pitched sound you hear bats making bounces off objects—and food—and gets back to the bats. They actually “see” what’s ahead of them in their mind, just like we see things because of reflected light. There is even a bat lab at the University of Maryland that is studying “one of the world’s most advanced tracking systems for location and interception of evasive moving target.” Yup, bats going after bugs. They are using bats (not hurting them) to improve sonar systems.

Now about this “blind as a bat” business: Sure, bats fly around in total darkness (pretty neat trick right there). And they are so good at echolocation they can not only “spot” a tasty moth at 100 feet; they can tell if it’s their favorite variety.

Bats can see just fine. Yes, they have those little beady eyes, but they can see well beyond echolocation. One type of bat that feeds on small fish can see the fin of a minnow, just below the water’s surface, at 60 feet.

So if you’ve got mosquito problems, check out the plans for “bat houses” at the Bat Conservation International site (www.batcon.org). If you’re still a little shaky about bats, be thankful you don’t live in the rainforests around Maitum, Sarangani, Philippines. They are home to the very rare Giant Fox Bat. It has a six-foot wingspan. Pretty creepy, huh?

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