Why Bats Are So Misunderstood

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

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Joe McDonald / Getty Images

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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