Why Bats Are So Misunderstood

Bees are getting all the attention, but bats are equally deserving of our sympathy

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A few years ago, when honey-bee populations in North America and Europe suddenly began plummeting — with death rates approaching 90% in some cases — people rightfully took notice. Documentary filmmakers, media outlets and pop-culture stalwarts from Doctor Who to the New York City–based art-rock group the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players referenced the mystery of the disappearing bees and the strikingly named phenomenon responsible for the devastation, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), was soon a familiar catchphrase.

(MORE: Is Your Garden Hose Toxic?)

All that is as it should be. Bees are wonderful and, in their own way, charming. They pollinate a breathtaking number of flowering plants. They make honey. When they want to communicate with their co-workers, they dance. The prospect of a bee apocalypse is more than worrisome; it’s saddening. A beeless world would be a duller, paler place.

So it might surprise you that another, equally useful and (to some of us) equally beguiling animal — the bat — has been battling a lethal foe of its own. The clamor to save bats, however, has been rather muted — a lack of attention that remains profoundly frustrating for admirers of the order Chiroptera (from the Greek word for, roughly translated, hand wing).

(MORE: Bat Signal: More than 5 Million Bats Dead from White-Nose Syndrome)

Bat populations in North America have, since 2006, been hit by a little-understood disease with, it must be said, a not-very-alarming name: White-Nose Syndrome, or WNS. More than 5 million bats in the Northeast, as far west as Missouri and as far south as Alabama, have died from a fungal growth — hence “white nose” — that biologists fear may be capable of wiping out several individual species. The common little brown bat, for example, has suffered mightily from WNS; its population in the Northeastern U.S. plummeted so rapidly in the past few years that its complete disappearance from the region within the next two decades is a real possibility.

For those of us enthralled by the strange, complex world of bats, this cataclysmic scenario is difficult — bordering on impossible — to accept. Bats, to put it bluntly, are simply too cool to die.

(VIDEO: Battle of the Endangered Species: Bats vs. Trees)

Comprising more than 1,200 distinct species, ranging in size from a wee hog-nosed sprite weighing about an ounce to a fruit-munching, 3-lb. colossus with a 4-ft. wingspan and the mien of a fox, bats are found all over the globe, from Patagonia to Alaska, Scandinavia to Madagascar, Montreal to Mongolia. But the stupefying range of bat habitats, sizes and temperaments isn’t their greatest source of wonder. Nor is it their freakishly precise power of echolocation, as awesome as that biotechnology might be.

Instead, bats represent a melding of the practical and the poetic so rare as to be almost unique in the nonhuman mammalian world. Leaving aside the wholly subjective discussion of their physical appeal — to my mind, most bats are far cuter than, say, Pomeranians — the centrality of the bat’s place in both nature’s great tapestry and in human affairs warrants notice and gratitude.

For one thing, most bats eat insects. Tons and tons of insects. According to Austin-based Bat Conservation International, a single colony the size of the one found each summer beneath Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge — roughly a million members — devours about 10 tons of insects (mosquitoes, moths, beetles, etc.) during its evening rounds. That’s 20,000 lb. of flying, biting, potentially disease-carrying, crop-destroying bugs for dinner. Every. Single. Night.

(MORE: The Economic Cost of Losing Bats)

A bat’s poetry, meanwhile, derives in large part from the ecological niche it shares with that other flying do-gooder: the above-mentioned bee. Like bees, bats around the world — especially the nectar-drinking, fruit-eating bats — are great pollinators. The flowers, fruits and seeds of trees they frequent and pollinate — peaches, mangoes, almonds and on and on — ornament the landscape while providing us with far more than mere nutrition: they add flavor, literally and figuratively, to our lives. Long-nosed bats, for instance, are the prime pollinators of the agave plant — from which humans, in their wisdom and folly, have for centuries distilled tequila.

(MORE: The Prius Paradox: We Can’t Buy Our Way out of Environmental Problems)

Bats are not only sorely misunderstood — they are not blind, for one thing; most can see fine but hunt at night, using echolocation, because that’s when most bugs come out — they are also much maligned. No bat is ever going to somehow become entangled in your hair, unless you physically shove it into your tresses. And today, millions of these ancient, benign and unappreciated creatures are, quite literally, in a fight for their lives. If they lose, we all lose.

MORE: Let’s Put Conservation Back in Conservative

52 comments
fightwns.org
fightwns.org

What a wonderful article about the importance and beauty of bats. We have recently launched a nonprofit initiative to raise funds solely for white-nose syndrome research and conservation efforts, thru donations and the sale of batstuff.We need the support of all those who appreciate and value bats. Please visit http://fightwns.orgThank you 

Reg Regan
Reg Regan

BATS EAT MOSQUITOES! Put up a bat house to attract bats to your

backyard or community and reduce your risk of West Nile Virus. Be sure to

purchase a “Certified” Cedar Bat House. Lone Star Woodcraft makes Certified Bat

Houses. www.lonestarwoodcraft.com

PrimalGecko
PrimalGecko

I actually had a bat in my house last night (the second time this year) and we had some fun chasing him/her around the house.  Both times, we caught the bat safely  and let him go outside to continue on with his life.  We love bats here and this article is very appreciated to help get the message out there about these little guys.  Here's a picture of the bat in our butterfly net from last night before we let it go - http://i89.photobucket.com/alb...

roadkill612
roadkill612

all gods critters is our brothers

shame about the biting rabid ones tho

they dont sound insect feeders anyway

surely they are blood sucking types - no better than skeeters

Not an issue here in oz am happy to say

am also told grey squirrels in the wild  carry deadly pneumatic bubonic plague  - bummer

the good ones do do insects amp; are nocturnal as are bugs amp; are well equipped for night dogfighting

 

Talendria
Talendria

This was a beautifully written article, but I still don't like bats, mostly because of the rabies problem.  Frankly I wish we could just inoculate the human population against rabies so I could have one less thing to worry about.

MisterImmortal
MisterImmortal

 In the US. Bats are on of the top 3 vectors for Rabies, an incurable, and 99% fatal disease.

evodivo
evodivo like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bat researchers are required to be immunized for rabies before handling any of the animals. That said, I have caught many bats in the U.S. and never seen a case of an infected animal. For the average person, you will never need to worry about rabies in bats because you will never catch one and they will almost never come after you. If you see a bat on the ground it is likely there because it is sick or injured. DO NOT PICK IT UP! That could potentially be the one bat out of hundreds or thousands in the area actually carrying the disease.  

Patrish Dehler
Patrish Dehler

I love bats.  Think they are cute, misunderstood and so important in the fight against bugs.  If f any wild creature bit me 6 times un provoked, I'd opt for the rabies shots too.  We constantly mess with nature for our own personal gain, and in the long run, we will suffer.  The one animal or plant that could save millions of lives, will (or has been) made instinct because of our greed and indifference.  Bees, bats, reptiles, all will fall before it's man's turn.

Transcending
Transcending

Sometimes I walk with my daughter in the evening and I have noticed bats all around us like never before. Another thing I noticed was the Japanese beetles were alot less, hope my batty friends are the ones taking care of this. :)

hambdiscus
hambdiscus

You forgot to mention that being a warm-blooded mammal, cats can and do carry rabies.  Spelunkers frequenting bat colony caves have contracted the disease, probably from inhaling bat guano dust.

evodivo
evodivo

As far as I know bat guano, urine, or blood cannot pass on rabies to humans. I believe it is only through contact with the salivary glands or brain tissues that it can be transmitted. 

Bat guano is more famous for histoplasmosis, which is a fungus. It usually only develops in guano that has been sitting around - like in caves or attics.

Source:

http://www.batcon.org/index.ph... 

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 Not only this, but bat guano is full of parasites.

 I think of bats as of animals I love more from a distance. I think that the bat enthusiasts should issue a bit more "Handle with care" warnings for bats, particularly when it comes to bat houses.

MayaScotch
MayaScotch

Well rabies can be passed by blood also, but not by urine or guano. Any mammal can have rabies, and the cases of rabies transmitted from bats to humans are actually very scarce if you look at the big picture.

Bats that feed on blood may carry more rabies because of their feeding habits, but there are only 3 species out of more than a thousand that do that! Plus, the populations of these bats have only grown so much because we have so much cattle! If all the farmers did as they were supposed to, and vaccinated their cows, we would have much less rabies.Talendria, Inoculating everyone for rabies currently isn't possible for a few reasons. First, the shots can cause allergies in many people, and second, you need to take the shots at least every year (or less. In may case, since I handle bats, I take them every 6 months) to keep it efficient.AS for guano, LoudRambler, it does have a lot of bugs (NOT parasites), because it is super nutritive. It is actually one of the best natural fertilizers you can find! And it's one of the only nutrients that get into many caves to maintain populations of insects, fishes and other cave dwellers that never go out. So bats are also super important in maintaining these very special cave ecosystems.

ArchieDeBunker
ArchieDeBunker

Honestly, the word "breathtaking" in an article that's supposed to be a little bit scientific sounds really wimpy - and inane.

Meanwhile, at our local supermarket, one of the employess was outside on her break and a bat bit her about six times. Since she couldn't catch it, she's now undergoing a really tough (maybe even "breathtaking") series of injections which are making her quite ill. Guess not all bats are created equal - apparently some are - well - just plain batty!

Sarah Kennedy
Sarah Kennedy

 One sick bat is ejected from the colony, and you attack the article that explains how beneficial the majority of bats are. With a name like ArchieDeBunker, why am I so surprised by your jaded and misguided easy stab?

And, I'm glad to hear she got those injections. Sick or not, she is alive.

-Sarah

vaccinated bat rehabilitator and feeling great after 3 years of work with them!

ArchieDeBunker
ArchieDeBunker

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah!  I didn't "attack the article."  I simply pointed out that in a supposedly informative and perhaps even a tiny bit scientific article, the word "breathtaking" is silly.  The fact that I don't like possibly rabid bats doesn't make me a great deal different from anyone else.  I don't like mosquitoes either - particularly the ones that have West Nile Virus - but I suppose they have their place in the ecosystem - if only to provide food for bats . . . . . .Now if we could only enhance the process of natural selection so that bats would only eat female mosquitos with WNV!

Sarah Kennedy
Sarah Kennedy

 Archie, Archie, Archie... My point was that to come onto an article that is passionate about these already maligned animals and say what you said first was in poor taste. Believe me, there's enough negative talk out there to fill up the ocean. The good press about bats could barely fill a small lake. Help change that going forward, if you bother to comment on further bat articles that come online again.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 If this is for rabies, they are a lot milder these days than they used to be.

 And, btw, they are actually supposed to make you sick to fight off the virus before it reaches the brains.

ArchieDeBunker
ArchieDeBunker

You'd have a hell of a time convincing the lady that the shots were "milder."  They are tremendously painful and she hasn't been able to work a single day since she started taking them.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 It is 3 shots these days against something like 40 shots administered into the stomachs than these used to be.

 Still beats dying from rabies, though.

PGHBuckeye
PGHBuckeye

When my sister visits we take the kids to the tree line at dusk and do"the bat call".  We are 3 for 3 this year and 2 for 2 last year.  Beneficial and fascinating.  Beware of the rare bat that can morph into an undead, human-like blood sucking count.

Bugboy
Bugboy

That bats could make a dent in the bug population is like saying you will fill in the ocean if you throw enough pebbles in.   

The research attesting to bats feeding on mosquitoes was extrapolated from bats feeding on synchronous emergent midges, which, lest anyone forgot to ask us entomologists, are NOT mosquitoes.  Those numbers were used to springboard the importance of bats  in reducing mosquito populations.  One wonders where the 20,000 pounds of bugs came from?  Similar number crunching?  

If you want to fluff your favorite furry animal, at least use some real science.

evodivo
evodivo

They basically measure how much individual bats are capable of eating in a single night and extrapolate out to the numbers of individuals in a population of interest. 

Yes, feeding weight is higher when insect populations boom. The numbers given seem pretty conservative though. They could have cited Mexican Free-tailed bat populations in Central and South Texas which have been determined to eat 1,000 tons of insects. Two orders of magnitude more than presented here. For more on that subject I highly recommend Link #2 written by Gary McCracken and Thomas Kunz. They are two of the most prodigious bat researchers of our time. 

See:

1. 

http://www.jstor.org/discover/...

2. 

http://www.sciencemag.org/cont...

*Disclaimer: I am also an insect fanatic.

Ryan Texan
Ryan Texan

I agree that they eat only tiny amounts of mosquitos. But they can deduce the amount of bugs they eat by examining stomach contents, getting the average amount (based on live weight of the bugs they find),  and then mutliplying by the number of bats. 

They use a legalistic definition since bats do eat mosquitoes - my understanding is it's .1% of what they consume. It is misleading to say they eat moths and mosquitoes like they are both on an even par - since they eat hundreds of times more moths.

Bugboy
Bugboy

Actually, it wasn't stomach content analysis they used for the midge emergence feeding study from which they got the "700 mosquitoes per minute" that ended up being quoted in Newsweek, they recorded the sounds the bats emitted as they swooped to collect their prey and used the calculations from that to figure feeding rates.  Then they decided midges have the same biology as mosquitoes.  

Stomach content analysis is useful, but not for gauging impact on populations of prey insects.  You can know nothing of the ambient abundance of prey populations based on your collections in hand, this I know from my own experience collecting mosquitoes.  You only know temporal relative numbers, that is what the population does from collection to collection over time.

By the way I really DO like bats, but as a biologist with 30+ years of experience, nothing annoys me more than running into biologists that think of no other animal than their exclusively favorite furry or feathered one as if no other organism exists.

No organism is greater or lesser than any other, they ALL have a function in the ecosystem, whether humans are able to figure it out or not.  This bat disease for example, may be the only way for this disease organism to survive, or may be nature's way to keep the population healthy. Who are we humans to decide if one is superior to the other?

Bugboy
Bugboy

@MayaScotch:disqus it sounds just like the way Dutch Elm disease made its way into the US: by elm logs being labeled oak logs.  

This also sounds similar to the fungus that is raging in many amphibian populations, for which many rare species populations are being taken into captivity in their entirety to keep them from being wiped out.  I hope these species of bats have a little more hardy population going to resist this.

  I would point out, though, that just because WE caused it, doesn't mean we have the capability to fix it, I have greater confidence in natural selection pressure.  If the bat population is strong, it should be able to withstand naturally occuring diseases, even if they are from across the world.  No one likes to think about dead bats, but it is the bat as a population, the genetic presence, that is crucial.

One thing we have seen from our many, many mistakes with plant introductions and even insect introductions: there is ALWAYS an associated organism that keeps that organism in check in its native lands, and there is a lag time from the initial introduction of one organism to introduction of the controlling organism. Fire ants are controlled by parasitic wasps, as is a fungus controls Love Bugs, and we are starting to see evidence that they are catching up to those waves of invaders that came into the US.

MayaScotch
MayaScotch

Bugboy, the problem with this disease is that it was normal in populations in Europe, but was taken to USA by humans, and the american bats had not been in contact with this fungus before, so it is creating a hugh impact. So, I don't mean to claim the bats are more important than the fungus, but this hugh impact we are seeing is only because we humans meddle too much... in that case, I think it is important we try and fix what is out fault.

evodivo
evodivo

Examining stomach contents is so 1950's. That method is frowned upon by modern scientists, but your assessment is basically correct. 

PGHBuckeye
PGHBuckeye

You are just a bug lover, like the one from Silence of the Lambs.  Bats by FAR are more beneficial than midges OR mosquitoes.  Get a life!

CNNidegaz
CNNidegaz

Ask Palin and Bachmann

Badger
Badger

Now why do you insult bats?

deemery
deemery

We put up a bat house (actually the nursery model) on our chimney, and I'm 90% sure the local bats have adopted it.  I haven't seen one actually come out of the bat house, but they seem to start their evening in our back yard and expand their range from there.  

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Ryan Texan
Ryan Texan

I like bats. But this article perpetuates the myth that bats eat mosquitoes. Yes, they do eat mosquitoes, but only when they have to or they accidentally get one while they are chasing bigger prey. (I cannot speak for the tiny varieties, but those are not but a miniscule portion of the total US bat population, and they don't consume very much anyway). Bats generally eat moths or other larger bugs. It is believed that bats use the same or more energy to collect mosquitoes than they provide back. Consider the fact that moths can weigh hundreds of times what mosquitoes weigh. Mosquitoes are much harder to echolocate. When they look at the stomach contents of bats, mosquitoes make up .1%. That isn't much. 

Again, bats are great. In Texas we are blessed with several places where you can see hundreds of thousands, if not millions of bats leave for evening feeding. It is truely cool to watch. I just want people to be factual about them. Even with hundreds of bats in your yard, you cannot expect to see any noticeable lowering of mosquito numbers. If you don't believe me, think about this - why are there so few bats in areas with large mosquito populations? Yet they are common in areas with crops (nearly no mosquitoes but lots of moths and other insects). 

Reg Regan
Reg Regan

BATS EAT MOSQUITOES! Put up a bat house to attract bats to your

backyard or community and reduce your risk of West Nile Virus. Be sure to

purchase a “Certified” Cedar Bat House. Lone Star Woodcraft makes Certified Bat

Houses. www.lonestarwoodcraft.com

evodivo
evodivo

It may not be as much of a myth as previously thought. A 2009 study found that Northern Long-eared Bats (a species of Myotis close relative of the bat presented in this article) had a significant impact on mosquito female oviposition (egg laying) due to bat predation in the experimental area - a reduction of over 30%. If you have Northern Long-eared Myotis (and perhaps other Myotis too - a common genus of bat in N.A.) foraging in your yard, you likely have fewer mosquitoes than you would otherwise. 

I stress the "may" because we have a lot more work to do on this subject to determine if these bats are really going after them in the wild.

Source: 

http://www.tcnj.edu/~science/d...

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Anyone who has spent an evening in the woods, eaten up by mosquitos and no-see-ums, knows that the flying pests essentially disappear once the bats start doing their evening rounds. Count me as a fan of bats.

Guest
Guest

I really hope the scienists figure out what is causing it because it breaks my heart to hear that bats all around the world are dying. I have had a personal expirenece with a Little Brown Bat I have a window unit and once I found one underneath it so I Have a special place for them.

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Shams Aci
Shams Aci

Comment / Concern / Opinion / Reflection:

Bats are really understood a strange bird animal adding to beauty to nature often felt and realized by the best of creatures, the humans but unfortunately recently a research report declared that this  lovely animals are gradually losing their  population because of massive death due to attack of certain fungus disease and may some other diseases, whereas, humans' love for various kinds of animals' existence on our lovely planet they  should compel themselves to rescue BATS' population as early as possible.

   -  A.R.Shams's Reflection  -  Press amp; Online Publications.

     

Philippa Doran
Philippa Doran

Bats are mammals and close in some way to primates.Birds are descended from dinosaurs. They are entirely different creatures.

New Zealand bats, like most NZ creatures, are very odd and walk about on the ground much of the time.Unfortunately the little Vampire Bat has a bad reputation, though most humans are unlikely to be bitten. And they are nothing like the Human Undead that are now so popular in films and literature. But there is also a Vampire Finch, the Sharp beaked finch of the Galapagos, that feeds on the blood of Boobies.