10 Things You Didn't Know About Bats

Fruit bat hanging upside down on a branch
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Bats get a bad rap. They're often perceived as spooky-looking, blood-sucking, rabies-carrying, cave-dwelling, upside down-hanging pests, only celebrated on Halloween; however, these diverse and widely distributed flying mammals are actually broadly beneficial to the ecosystems in which they — and we — live.

The order Chiroptera includes more than 1,400 species of bats, making up a sizable chunk of the entire class Mammalia. They are the only mammals capable of flight and can be found almost anywhere in the world. Find out what's behind those pointy ears and veiny wings that makes bats one of the most important animals on Earth.

1. Bats Account for a Quarter of All Mammalian Species

Fruit bat hanging from tree, Bali, Indonesia
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With more than 1,300 species included in the order Chiroptera, bats represent one of the largest orders of mammals, making up more than 20 percent of the class Mammalia. They are surpassed only by the order Rodentia, which boasts more than 2,000 species, representing 40 percent of all mammalian species.

Chiroptera is separated into two suborders: megabats and microbats. Megabats, commonly known as fruit bats or flying foxes, have excellent vision and feast on fruit and nectar whereas microbats are characterized by their use of echolocation and appetites for insects and blood.

2. They're Found Across the Planet

Indian flying fox bat hanging on a branch
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As with birds, bats' wings allow them to travel to all corners of the world, from Africa to Australia to Canada. They do, however, tend to avoid polar regions.

Bats generally roost in caves, crevices, foliage, and man-made structures like attics or under bridges. At least 40 species of bats are present in the U.S. alone, with the most common species being the little brown bat, the big brown bat, and the Mexican free-tailed bat.

3. They Use Echolocation To Hunt Prey

Although microbats are not blind, their true perceptive strength lies in their ability to use echolocation.

Similar to shrews, dolphins, and some cave-dwelling birds, bats forage for food by emitting a continuous stream of high-pitched sounds audible only to other bats. When the sound waves collide with a nearby insect or object, the interrupted waves echo back, generating an acute sonic representation of the bat's surroundings. They can detect objects as thin as a single human hair.

4. Bat Colonies Save Humans Billions in Pest Control

There's no need for harmful pesticides when you have a robust colony of bats nearby. Some individuals can eat more than 600 insects per hour — making bats a perfect choice for organic pest control.

The U.S. Department of Interior puts the agricultural value of this service anywhere between $3.7 and $53 billion. Scientists predict this could change within the next decade as North American bat populations face emerging threats like habitat loss and disease.

5. Yes, Some Do Drink Blood

Contrary to what their name suggests, vampire bats don't actually suck blood, but they do use their razor-sharp teeth to make small incisions in the skin of sleeping animals, then consume the blood as it runs from the wound. They only require about two tablespoons of blood per day, so the victim's loss is negligible and seldom causes harm.

6. Bats Hang Upside Down To Conserve Energy

Small bat hanging on the tree
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Bats evolved to hang upside down for long periods of time. The bat ancestor developed claws for hanging to wait for insects to come up the tree. This unique hanging position also conserves energy. As opposed to defying gravity and standing upright, no energy has to be expended while hanging due to the lightweight structure of their leg muscles and bones, developed for flight.

7. They're the Only Flying Mammals

Flying foxes, aka fruit bats, flying in the sky
Bruno Guerreiro / Getty Images

While some mammals like flying squirrels, sugar gliders. and colugos can glide through the air for short distances, bats are capable of true, sustained flight. Unlike birds, which move their entire forelimbs, bats fly by flapping their webbed digits. The membrane of the wings is sensitive and delicate, and while it can be easily ripped, it can just as easily regrow.

8. They Have Surprisingly Long Life Spans

The greater mouse-eared bat, which can live up to 22 years in the wild
Michal Pesata / Shutterstock

Larger mammals tend to have slower metabolisms and therefore longer life spans, but there are exceptions. According to a 2019 study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, there are 19 mammal species that live even longer than humans, relative to their body size, and 18 of them are bats.

The Brandt's bat, for instance, weighs just 4 to 8 grams, yet it can live for 40 years. The study identified several possible reasons for their outsized longevity, including genetic traits that are already known to extend life span as well as novel genes that have not yet been linked with healthy aging.

9. They Share Their Homes With Thousands of Others

Egyptian rousette bats hanging in a large group at night
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The world's largest natural bat colony is the Bracken Bat Cave in Texas, which reportedly houses 20 million. Over the course of one night, the entire colony can consume several tons of flying insects. There are so many that when they collectively depart their cave to go foraging, their bodies create a dense cloud that is visible on a weather radar.

10. Bats Are in Trouble

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists more than 100 bat species as Vulnerable, more than 50 as Endangered, and 30 as Critically Endangered, at imminent risk of extinction due to the ongoing destruction of their natural habitats, hunting, and disease. As a result of deforestation and the inherently fragile state of rainforest ecosystems, nectar-feeding bats are especially prone to extinction.

White-nose syndrome, characterized by a white fungus accumulating around the muzzle, is a major threat to hibernating bats. The disease spread rapidly after it was discovered in 2006 and is now documented in hundreds of bat colonies across North America. With a mortality rate as high as 99 percent in some colonies, this disease is responsible for the deaths of at least 6 million bats.

Save the Bats

  • The U.S. Department of the Interior recommends planting a bat garden or installing a bat house to attract bats to your yard. Because many bat species live on insects, you should limit the use of pesticides on your lawn and garden.
  • Caves with bats should be generally avoided, but if you happen to stumble upon a bat colony in an open cave, follow the official National Decontamination Protocol to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome. This includes disinfecting clothes and gear after entering a cave.
  • According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, many states offer programs in which ordinary citizens can aid in scientific research, such as Acoustic Bat Monitoring in Wisconsin and the Summer Bat Roost Monitoring Project in Indiana. See whether your state's natural resource agency offers something similar.
  • Donate to Bat Conservation International, an organization leading conservation, education, and research efforts around the world.
View Article Sources
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