They’ve been called creepy, scary and spooky, but bats are an important species that impact our daily lives. From pollinating our favorite fruits to eating pesky insects to inspiring medical marvels, they are heroes of the night.
Bat Week — held the last week in October — celebrates the role of these winged wonders in nature and all that these amazing creatures do for us. Check out some interesting facts and photos below from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
1. There are over 1,400 species worldwide. Bats can be found on nearly every part of the planet except in extreme deserts and polar regions. The difference in size and shape are equally impressive. They range in size from the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (also called the Bumblebee) that weighs less than a penny — making it the world’s smallest mammal — to the flying foxes, which can have a wingspan of up to 6′. The U.S. and Canada are home to about 45 species and additional species are found in the U.S. territories in the Pacific and Caribbean.
2. Not all bats hibernate. Even though bears and bats are the two most well-known hibernators, not all bats spend their winter in caves. Some survive by migrating in search of food to warmer areas when it gets chilly.
3. Bats have few natural predators — disease is one of the biggest threats. Owls, hawks and snakes eat bats, but that’s nothing compared to the millions dying from white-nose syndrome. The disease — named for a white fungus on the muzzle and wings — affects hibernating bats and has been detected in 37 states and seven Canadian provinces. This deadly syndrome has decimated certain species more than others. It has killed over 90% of northern long-eared, little brown, and tri-colored populations in fewer than 10 years. Scientists are working to understand the disease. You can help by avoiding places where they hibernate. If you do go underground, decontaminate your clothing, footwear, and gear to help with not spreading this disease to other areas.
4. Without bats, say goodbye to bananas, avocados, and mangoes. Over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination. Bats help spread seeds for nuts, figs, and cacao — the main ingredient in chocolate. Without bats, we also wouldn’t have plants like agave or the iconic saguaro cactus. Just like a hummingbird, the lesser long-nosed bat (pictured left) can hover at flowers, using its 3-inch-long tongue — equal to its body length — to feed on nectar in desert environments. (Photo by Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International.)
5. Each night, bats can eat their body weight in insects, numbering in the thousands! This insect-heavy diet helps foresters and farmers protect their crops from pests. The endangered Indiana bat, which weighs about three pennies, consumes up to half its bulk every evening. (Photo by Andrew King, USFWS.)
6. They are the only flying mammal. While the flying squirrel can only glide for short distances, bats are true fliers. A bat’s wing resembles a modified human hand — imagine the skin between your fingers larger, thinner and stretched. This flexible skin membrane that extends between each long finger bone and many movable joints make them agile fliers. At left, California leaf-nosed bats exit a cave at Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo by Kristen Lalumiere, National Park Service.)
7. They may be small, but they’re fast little creatures. How fast a bat flies depends on the species, but they can reach speeds over 100 miles per hour according to new research. Show right, Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from Texas’s Bracken Cave. Over 15 million bats live there, making it the largest known colony and largest concentration of mammals on Earth! (Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.)
8. Conservation efforts are helping bat species recover. At least 12 types of U.S. bats are endangered, and more are threatened. These amazing animals face a multitude of threats including habitat loss and disease, but the U.S. Department of the Interior is working to change that. A unique international conservation partnership in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico has been working to help one species, the lesser long-nosed bat, recover to the point it can be removed from the Endangered Species list. In 1988, there were thought to be fewer than 1,000 at the 14 known roosts range wide. There are now an estimated 200,000 at 75 roosts!
9. The longest-living bat is 41 years old. Although most live less than 20 years in the wild, scientists have documented six species that life more than 30 years. In 2006, a tiny bat from Siberia set the world record at 41 years.
10. Like cats, bats clean themselves. Far from being dirty, bats spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Some even groom each other. Besides having sleek fur, cleaning also helps control parasites.
11. Dogs aren’t the only ones with pups. Baby bats are called pups, and a group is a colony. Like other mammals, mothers feed their pups breastmilk, not insects. Most give birth to a single pup! There is at least one species that commonly has twins and that is the eastern red bat. Momma bats form nursery colonies in spring in caves, dead trees, and rock crevices.
12. Bats are medical marvels. About 80 medicines come from plants that rely on bats for their survival. Studying how bats use echolocation has also helped scientists develop navigational aids for the blind. Research on these mammals has also led to advances in vaccines.
13. Innies or Outies? Humans aren’t the only ones with belly buttons. With a few exceptions, nearly all mammals have navels, including bats. This Mariana Fruit bat’s belly button is on display above. (Photo by Julia Boland, USFWS.)
Bats need your help. You can help protect these amazing creatures by planting a pollinator garden or installing a bat house. Stay out of closed caves, especially ones with bats. If you’re visiting an open cave, make sure to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome by following these guidelines.
For more on pollinators, click here.