Our 7 Favorite Facts About Bats
Bat week is one of our favorite times of the year at EcoHealth Alliance; there’s plenty to love about these furry little creatures.
Though, as mammals, they are decently closely related to humans, they may have appeared on Earth as many as 65-100 million years ago, at about the same time as dinosaurs. Bats' wings are made of the same bones in our fingers and covered with a thin layer of skin. Unlike birds, which flap their entire limbs, bats flap these "digits" individually in order to propel themselves through the air.
Here are some interesting facts about bats:
Bats are extremely adaptable and live on almost every continent
There are bats native to the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. They can be found almost as far north as the Arctic and as far south as Argentina and the southern tip of South Africa. As this suggests, they are extremely adaptable. Bats have adjusted to live around human populations and are some of the most successful animals at living in an urban environment.
They’re the only flying mammals and are extremely diverse
They are the only mammals capable of self-powered flight, but they’re by no means rare. Bats account for about one in five of all mammals living on the planet and there are around 1,300 bat species worldwide. They are, however, threatened by loss of natural habitat and hunting, and many species of bat are considered endangered or threatened.
Though they’re the only mammals to have developed the ability to fly, they’re extremely good at it. The Mexican free-tailed bat can achieve speeds up to 99 miles per hour in the air and fly as high as 10,000 feet, as high as a bald eagle.
Flying foxes can have wingspans up to 6 feet long (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)
Bats aren't one size fits all
Bats are separated into two categories: megabats and microbats. The largest megabats, flying foxes, can reach a wingspan of up to 6 feet. The smallest microbats, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, are roughly the size of a thumbnail and weigh less than a penny.
Ever heard of a batsicle?
Many bats travel south for the winter. However, some hibernate. Even more hardcore than bears, bats can actually survive being encased in ice during their hibernation.
Dozens of flying foxes roost in Thailand (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)
Bats build the rainforest
Bats are phenomenal for plants and trees, imperative in some places. Many bats eat fruit and, therefore, spread the seeds required to plant more. As some can fly as far as 250 miles in a night, they can spread fruit seeds across vast spaces, ensuring the survival of the plants. Some bats which feed on nectar have tongues that extend as far as one-third of their body length and are just as important for a plant’s pollination as bees or other nectar-eating animals. In old world (Africa, Asia, Europe) forests, bats are responsible for as much as 50 percent of the forests’ vegetation.
Bats control insect populations
Most bats, however, eat insects. This is, of course, important to farmers whose crops would otherwise be eaten by insects. But these bats also play an important role in maintaining human health. One bat is capable of eating up to 1,200 mosquitoes in a single hour. Between malaria, dengue fever, and other vector-borne illnesses, mosquitoes claim roughly 750,000 human lives per year.
Dr. Kevin Olival releases a bat after testing (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)
Only three species of bats are vampiric
Many people believe bats are greedy bloodsuckers; Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is probably to blame for that belief. There are, however, only three species of bats which practice hematophagia; they all live in Latin America. No vampire bats actually suck blood, but rather lap it up from small wounds they create with sharp canine teeth. Vampire bats primarily prey on livestock and rarely humans.
Bats are immune to many diseases
Bats are not affected by many diseases that are lethal to humans like Ebola, SARS, and Nipah. This makes them natural reservoirs for these diseases that all, incidentally, rank among the WHO’s top eight emerging disease threats. This has given them a pretty bad name since they were discovered to be a reservoir for rabies in the 1930s.
It is, though, important to keep in mind that the vast majority of disease spillover from bats into humans is due to human behavior. The SARS outbreak in China was due to humans touching the carcasses of dead bats being sold in wet markets. Nipah’s first outbreak in humans happened after pig farmers began feeding mangoes which had been partially eaten by Nipah-positive bats to their swine.
At EcoHealth Alliance, we work with bats on a regular basis and it’s important that we keep One Health in mind. For us it’s not just about considering the important relationships of all living things, but also the ways we can all mitigate bat-borne disease spread. This includes educating people about healthy contact with bats, stressing deforestation’s role in disease spread, and, of course, testing bat populations for pathogens, sharing that information both locally and globally, and creating models which determine global risk of disease spillover.
All in all, bats play a disproportionate role in maintaining ecosystems we, and many other species, depend on. It’s important to consider all the good they do.