Educational Series: Imperiled Bats Need Our Help, Not Persecution

By Nick Engelfried
Perhaps no other group of animals is as misunderstood and frequently mischaracterized as members of the order Chiroptera, or bats. Although long feared and maligned in many parts of the world, these furry flying mammals play essential roles in most land-based ecosystems and pose no threat to humans as long as they are left alone. Unfortunately, their undeserved bad reputation has too often led to their neglect by conservation campaigns, or even to being actively persecuted. To ensure a safe future for the world’s many incredible bat species, we must learn to better appreciate and understand them.

With more than 900 species around the world, bats are a highly diverse group of mammals, second only to rodents. Yet, because they are active after dark, few people get the chance to see them up close in their natural habitat. Bats’ most obviously unique characteristic is their pair of leathery wings; they are the only mammals who truly fly (“flying” squirrels and some other mammal species glide on flaps of skin, but do not fly). Like birds, bat wings are derived from the animals’ forelimbs, and have evolved over the course of millions of years into structures whose main purpose is to stay airborne. Most bats are incredibly agile flyers, capable of performing dazzling acrobatics in the night sky.

Like many groups of animals, bats reach the height of their species diversity near the equator. Tropical ecosystems in various parts of the world are home to huge flying fox fruit bats, some with wingspans of up to six feet; nectar drinking bats who help pollinate flowers; vampire bats; and a host of small insect-eating species. Temperate regions have fewer bat species–the U.S. and Canada are home to about forty-four kinds of bats–but those who do live in these more northern climates play important parts in their local ecosystems.

Bats are found all over North America in almost every habitat, except in the far north. Some of the larger North American species, like the hoary bat and the desert-dwelling pallid bat, can have wingspans of up to sixteen inches. However, most are much smaller. One of the most abundant species is the little brown bat, a tiny creature no larger than a mouse. Little brown bats can occasionally be found roosting on the sides of buildings or trees during the day.

Most North American bat species are insect eaters who perform a vital service by keeping mosquitoes and other pests under control. A bat’s flying lifestyle comes with high energy needs, translating into a voracious appetite; insectivorous bats may consume the equivalent of well over half their body weight in insects in a single night! Most species search for their winged prey in the dark using echolocation, employing ultrasonic chirps to detect unseen objects in a manner similar to how ships use sonar. Insectivorous bats have incredibly good hearing and the ability to swivel their ears in order to pinpoint the direction a sound is coming from. The ear movements of some species are controlled by over twenty separate, tiny but powerful muscles.

Not all U.S. bats are insectivores–and neither is consuming insects the only useful function bats serve. The lesser long-nosed bat, for instance, is a nectar-feeder and an important pollinator of cacti and agave plants in the desert Southwest. Yet despite their importance, bats face a variety of threats linked to human actions. Some of these, like climate change and habitat destruction, are similar to the challenges confronting many other animals in our industrial era. Others are more unique to bats.

In 2006, a deadly disease known as white-nose syndrome began wiping out large numbers of bats in the Northeast United States. The disease is caused by a fungus known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which is native to Eurasia and was likely introduced accidentally to the U.S. by humans. The spores of the fungus can stick to clothes or shoes and be inadvertently transported by those who have visited the damp caves where it grows; this is likely how it crossed the ocean. Bats on the fungus’ native continent have evolved resistance to it over thousands or millions of years, but those in North America have been devastated by white-nose syndrome’s arrival. From the Northeast, the disease rapidly spread across the continent, reaching the West Coast within a decade.

White-nose syndrome infects bats hibernating in caves or other sheltered places in the dead of winter, often showing up as a powder-like substance on the affected animal’s face. The disease causes bats to wake up in the middle of what should be their hibernation season, and use valuable fat reserves meant to last them through the winter. As a result, infected bats are likely to freeze or die of starvation.

Fortunately, there is some good news: bats in at least some parts of North America seem to be evolving and adapting to beat white-nose syndrome. Some populations of hibernating Indiana bats now wake up in synchrony at night, going back to sleep again without expending much energy. Researchers believe waking together allows the bats to benefit from each others’ body heat, reducing the need to burn through their own fat reserves. Despite such encouraging signs, white-nose syndrome is still a deadly risk to bats all over North America. If you visit caves or other places where bats roost, do your part to prevent the fungus’ spread by thoroughly disinfecting your clothes and any equipment you bring. The National White-Nose Syndrome Decontamination Protocol, available online, contains specific instructions for how to do this.

Other threats to bats include loss of habitat from deforestation and land development; the disruption of ecosystems caused by climate change; and declining insect populations resulting from the use of insecticides and other factors. More than 230 bat species are classified as threatened or endangered, with twelve known to have already gone extinct because of human actions. Yet, partly because of their undeserved reputation, bats have received less attention from the conservation community than many other groups of organisms. For example, more than a dozen African bat species are so little-studied that we don’t even have enough information to accurately assess their conservation status.

There are many things we can do to help prevent more bat species extinctions. If you have a yard, consider putting up a “bat box,” a special structure designed for bats to roost in; check out the websites of organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and Bat Conservation International for information on how to build or buy your own bat box. Also avoid using pesticides on your lawn or garden. Perhaps most importantly, you can get involved in local or national efforts to promote policies that protect bats and their habitat.

With enough support from the public, we can expect to see more bat conservation success stories like that of the lesser long-nosed bat. This important desert species numbered fewer than 1,000 individuals in 1988, but has responded well to measures that conserve and enhance their habitat. Today there are around 200,000 lesser long-nosed bats, and they were officially removed from the Endangered Species List in 2018.

While myths about bats still abound, growing numbers of people are waking up to the importance of these night-flying mammals. With each of us doing our part, we can create a world where bats and humans co-exist peacefully well into the future.

Photo credit: Alobenda

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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