Bring on the bats

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More friend than foe, Halloween season a good time to dispel myths

Whether you fear them, are fascinated by them, or a little of both — bats are an animal most people have an opinion on. It doesn’t help the fear factor that they are a popular motif for Halloween décor and everything “spooky” and “scary.”

With the last week in October designated as bat week, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service wanted to help Texans separate fact from fiction and delve deeper into these amazing and beneficial animals.

As the only true flying mammal — flying squirrels glide not fly — bats can seem a little bizarre, which probably doesn’t help their public perception. They live in dark places, come out at night to feed, and the sight of hundreds in flight can send a shiver down people’s spines.

But bats are far more friend than foe. Although, like all wildlife, they need space and a healthy dose of respect, they deserve our appreciation rather than our abhorrence.

Texas has 33 species of bats, more than any other state. And appropriately enough, since everything is bigger in Texas, it is also home to the world’s largest bat colony.

Brian Pierce, Ph.D., Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute associate director, Bryan-College Station, and Janet Hurley, AgriLife Extension senior program specialist for school integrated pest management, Dallas, shared what Texans should know about bats before the annual week of recognition starts.

Pierce is part of a team looking at ways to stop the spread and protect bats from white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that affects and kills hibernating bats. It does not cause illness in humans but is transferred between bat populations with devastating results.

The world needs bats

Ranging from Instagram-cute to a face only a mother, or biologist, could love — all bats play key roles in their ecosystems and are crucially important to biodiversity, human health and agriculture.

Hate mosquitoes? Bats have your back. They can eat up to their weight in insects each night. Their insect-heavy diet also serves to protect crops from pests.

“Bats provide such a vital role in controlling insect pests, but because most people never interact with them, they don’t really appreciate how important they are for public health and agriculture,” Pierce explained.

Pierce said that although bats don’t rid us of all our insect pests, they put a huge dent in their populations.

“Back when southern states were fighting yellow fever and other insect-transmitted diseases, giant artificial roosts were constructed for bats,” he said. “Bats were used to minimize mosquitoes and control disease spread before the use of pesticides.”

Bats also act as pollinators for over 300 fruits and spread seeds for nuts, figs and cacao. If you love chocolate or guacamole, the work they do as pollinators helps make all those products possible. And, they serve as a food source for birds of prey as well as some other animals.

“All species have an important role to play in our environment,” said Pierce. “It just so happens that bats play a role we don’t really see. It is very much like the bee population; without bees many things wouldn’t be pollinated and the effect on agriculture would be huge.”

Myth busters

  • Bats are not blind. They have good vision but also use sound waves, or echolocation, to help them navigate and locate food.
  • Not all bats live in huge colonies in caves. Some species are loners and prefer to have a small space of their own.
  • Unlike the myth of Dracula, bats don’t live forever and aren’t afraid of the sunlight. Some species can live up to 30 years and not all bats are strictly nocturnal.
  • Only a few species of bats actually drink blood. The usual choice of host is cattle or chickens, and they don’t drink enough to kill the animal. The rest stick to a diet of insects, small reptiles, fruits and pollen.
  • Bats will not fly at you to attack your head. If one seems to divebomb you, they are probably swooping down to get the mosquitoes and insects you attract.

Fascinating facts

  • Bracken Cave Preserve, located outside of San Antonio, has the world’s largest colony, with an estimated 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats.
  • Most females can only have one baby, or pup, per year. Times of drought, food scarcity and stress can result in entire colonies not producing pups.
  • Their size varies from teeny tiny to several pounds. The bumblebee bat can weigh less than a penny whereas the flying fox/fruit bat can have a wingspan over 4 feet.
  • Each species has a unique vocalization.
  • Bats within the genus Myotis have been found to have telomeres that don’t seem to shorten with age. Telomeres, which are sections of DNA located at the end of chromosomes, affect the aging process for all mammals. This could explain why they are the longest-living known bat species and could help scientists better understand the process of aging.
  • Some hibernate during the winter while others migrate to warmer climates. Some live in Texas full time, but for others it is just a migratory stop.
  • Scientists who study bats are called chiropterologists.

Protecting bats

As people encroach on what has historically been their habitat, bat populations can be negatively impacted through habitat loss. This also can lead to more human/bat interactions.

Part of protecting bats is making sure they don’t encounter people and that they don’t make their homes in places where removal will be necessary. Hurley teaches professionals how to keep bats out of schools and other buildings and what to do should they come in contact with one.

“They traditionally return to the same place to roost again and again,” Hurley said. “So, if that grove of trees is cut down and replaced with a building or house, there’s a good chance that bats will try to make themselves at home if they can find a way to enter the building.”

Use care and caution

For centuries people have been fearful of getting rabies from bats. Nowadays, if a person does come in contact, post-exposure prophylaxis is available. This series of shots can prevent rabies from developing if given before symptoms start

It is a good precautionary practice to seek medical evaluation and care immediately following any direct contact with a bat, Hurley said.

Most years, the U.S. records zero deaths from rabies from bats, but there were five fatal instances in 2021 involving people who didn’t seek medical aid and/or weren’t properly treated in time.

“Your odds of dying from getting rabies from a bat are very slight, but proper caution around them is something children and adults need to be aware of and understand,” Hurley said.

The reality is you need to take extra caution and avoid any bat or other wildlife that is acting strangely. Never touch or hold any bat.

Like all wildlife, keep your distance and don’t enter caves or other places where they live and mate. Bats have far more to fear from us than the other way around.

Viewing bats

If you want to safely view bats in Texas, go to known sites where you can stay a safe distance and not disturb them.

Many of these locations are in the Hill Country or around Houston, but you can view bats throughout the state. From the world-famous Congress Avenue Bridge colony in Austin — the largest urban colony anywhere — to the privately owned Frio Bat Cave that houses around 10 million bats, Texas is a bat lover’s and chiropterologist’s dream.

“They are active at night, they mind their own business, and they try to stay away from people,” Pierce said. “Bats may be something out of most people’s mind, but they are an important part of our daily lives whether we know it or not. Now is a great time to learn more about a species that is key to the planet.”

As reported in the High Plains Journal.

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