Flying through the night, I watch over this world, a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight, I’m… Okay, fine. So, I’m not Batman. I’m just a bat. But like Batman, I’m often misunderstood. People think I’m scary, strange and dangerous. If they only knew my story, though, I’d be cheered as a hero. When people think of bats, many think of vampires who want to suck their blood. But the truth is that out of over 1200 bat species, only three are vampire bats. Out of these three, only one prefers the blood of mammals, and even these bats mostly feed on cattle. Maybe that still doesn’t seem so great, but vampire bats can be a great help to humans.
A chemical known as desmoteplase found in vampire bat saliva helps break down blood clots, and is being tested by recovering stroke victims. Of the remaining 1000+ species of bats, about 70% feed on insects. These bats help control the real vampires: mosquitos, whose nasty bites are not just annoying but spread diseases, like West Nile virus. A single little brown bat can eat 1000 insects every hour, and a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats can eat several tons of moths in just one night.
In the United States alone, bats provide an estimated 3.7 billion dollars worth of free pest control for farmers, which benefits everyone who eats the foods that they grow. Fruit bats, also called megabats because of their large size, are important for the role they play in plant pollination. By traveling between flowers while feeding on nectar and fruits, these bats transport the pollen and seeds that help plants reproduce. In Southeast Asia, for example, the cave nectar bat is the only pollinator of the durian fruit. Other bats pollinate peaches, bananas, and the agave plants that tequila is made from. Without them, many of our food plants would be unable to produce the tasty fruits we enjoy. As heroes of the ecosystem, bats have their own unique utility belts.
Bats have been a source of inspiration for the design of flying robots and even an energy-efficient spy plane, as they are the only mammal capable of true powered flight. Echolocation, a type of biological sonar, is also used by bats as a way to navigate and find prey in the dark. Although there’s a common misconception that bats are blind, in truth, all species of bats have sight. And some have even adapted large eyes to see better in dim lighting. Many people worry about getting infected by bats, and like any other animals, bats can carry diseases, like rabies. In reality, though, less than .5% of all bats carry this virus.
That’s about the same odds as getting the same result on a coin flip eight times in a row. The perception that bats are often diseased may come from the fact that sick bats, who may show unusual behavior, emerge during the daytime, or be unable to fly, are more likely to be encountered by people. So a good way to protect yourself is to protect bats as well, keeping them healthy, protecting their habitats, and reducing their risk of transmitting disease. In North America, bats are threatened by a devastating sickness called white-nose syndrome. This fungal infection causes bats to wake up while hibernating during a winter.
Unable to find food, they expend large amounts of energy, and eventually starve to death. White-nose syndrome has wiped out entire caves full of bats, with a mortality rate that can exceed 90%. Climate change and habitat destruction also pose serious threats to bat populations. For example, in January 2014, a record heat wave in Australia caused over 100,000 bats to die from heat exhaustion. Some people just want to watch the world burn, and bats all over the world are threatened by damage to the places that we call home, including mangrove swamps, old-growth forests, and, of course, bat caves.
So even though I’m the hero of the story, I do need to be saved. And now that you know the true story about us bats, you can learn how to protect such heroic animals. Install a properly designed bat box, one of the easiest ways to provide shelter for bats. Discourage the use of pesticides, which can harm bats when we try to feed on the insects you want to get rid of in the first place. Avoid going into caves where you might disturb hibernating bats, and always decontaminate your gear after visiting a cave.
If you have unwanted bats living in an attic or barn, contact your local government to safely and humanely relocate us. And if you come across a bat, do not attempt to handle it, but instead, call Animal Control. Batman might want to keep his identity secret, but a great way to help real bats is by continuing to learn about them and spreading the truth that they are real heroes, even if their good deeds are often unseen.