Appreciating bats before white-nose syndrome
Back in 2007, my children came into the studio with me to record a segment on bats as a way of celebrating Halloween. Hearing their young voices in that is an enjoyable trip down memory lane for me. But I want you to hear it today for another reason. At the time we recorded this segment, we were entirely unaware that a pathogen capable of killing bats on a massive scale had arrived in the U.S. So think of this as a happy, “before” piece. Next week, then, I’ll tell you about the “after.”
As Halloween approaches I like to make time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house, my children, Jane and Will, have joined me today to celebrate bats.
I suspect most young people of the present have grown up without being exposed to the kinds of myths about bats that previous generations grew up on. After all, these are kids who have read books with positive bat characters like Stellaluna and Silverwing.
But it can still be fun to bring up old myths, if only to contradict them.
Rob: Guys, are bats blind?
Jane and Will: Nooo.
Rob: Do bats like to get tangled in people’s hair?
Jane and Will: Oh, Please.
Rob: Are bats flying mice?
Jane and Will: Daaad.
Okay, okay. Scientists classify bats in their very own order, chiroptera. Worldwide there are around 1,000 species of bats, and they constitute a quarter of all mammal species alive today.
What’s so cool about bats?
Will: Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. Other mammals, like so-called flying squirrels, can jump from a perch and glide. But bats can propel themselves through the air, and stay up for a long time. The wings of bats are made of very thin skin stretched over very long fingers. [Photo of little brown bat courtesy the Illinois Natural History Survey.]
Jane: Another thing that’s really cool about bats is how they use echolocation to find prey and avoid obstacles as they fly. This built-in sonar allows them to detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as human hair.
Will, I know you’re interested in those vicious vampire bats, the ones that suck people’s blood. What can you tell us about them?
Will: Well, vampire bats do drink blood and they can only go a couple of days without eating. But they try to feed on humans only as a last resort. Vampires, which live in Central and South America, prefer to feed on cattle or other wild animals.
Jane: Aside from vampire bats, there are bats that eat lizards, bats that eat birds, and bats that eat other bats. Even more bats feed on fruits and their juices. But 70% of all bats, including all of the species from North America, are insectivores.
Will: And bats can eat a lot of bugs. A male little brown bat eats about half of his body weight in mosquitoes and other insects per night.
Jane: And a female little brown bat that is nursing a pup eats more than her own weight nightly. By eating so many bugs bats perform an important service for people.
Dad: So, since you guys like bats so much, if you found one would you pick it up?
Will: No way--bats are wild animals, and we know they can bite.
Jane: Besides, although very few people in the U.S. get rabies anymore, those who do usually get it from the bite of an infected bat.
Dad: It’s best to consult with the state department of public health or a local animal control agency if you’re faced with the task of getting a bat out your house.
Will: In reality, bats have more to fear from people than people have to fear from bats.
Rob: About half of all bat species worldwide are threatened or endangered, including 4 of the 12 species that occur in Illinois.
Jane: To learn more about bats and what you can do to help protect them, check out the links at the Environmental Almanac website.
Homepage of Bat Conservation International
Articles from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports online:
Indiana Bats in Illinois
Species Spotlight: Little Brown Bat