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Cute Chiroptera: Six Compelling Reasons to Love and Conserve Bats
Bats up Close
If you've never seen a bat up-close, having a positive opportunity to do so would likely reshape your view of bats dramatically. If you like them already, you are likely to become completely infatuated. If you are unsure or don't like them, you just haven't been introduced to the right bats (and/or bat facts).
Even as a professional biologist, working with very 'charismatic' species and their habitat (lynx, bears, wolverines, wolves), bats are my favorite species to work with. Hands on, through analysis work, through education, or via habitat conservation, it is my favorite part of wildlife biology.
For many people, bats could never compete for a top spot among most-exciting species. But their sordid history and reputation among countless generations of misinformed humans is just one of many fascinating factors that would give them very high status in any fair and just ranking.
Reconstructing Bats' Reputations
Bats have gotten a very bad rap throughout history for very unfair and unfounded reasons. Mostly through myths, such as the false idea that bats will fly into your hair or that most bats suck blood. Folklore and legends have further cemented bats in our minds as creepy and scary.
But logically and emotionally, bats clearly deserve a very different reputation. Which they more than earn on a nightly basis.
A few of the more tangible financial and ecological benefits of bats are on this list, but the softer values that start off the list are worthy of attention, too.
1. Bats are Incredibly Cute
There are a few odd looking bats out there. But even these are mostly in the weird or intriguing categories of creatures. Most bats are absolutely adorable. Face to face, they are just as cute as the small mammals we feed in parks or bring into our homes. Often cuter.
Different groups of bats have different features that may make this argument more or less compelling. Fruit bats and flying foxes common in some parts of the world are considerably larger than the species found in North America. This may be a bit uncomfortable for some, but their facial expressions are that much easier to see in the wild or in a zoo and their features are similar to mammals most people already enjoy.
Species like the Hoary bat pictured here are just all around darned cute. Scientists and rehabilitators vaccinated and permitted to handle bats that have had the honor to handle this species (myself included) will tell you it's one of the softest things they've ever felt.
Among the smaller species of bats in particular, even their attempts to look scary when captured often just make them cuter.
Rescued baby bats show their growing personalities
2. Intelligence and Personality
Videos are worth a thousand words, and happily there are amazing bat rehabilitators all over the world posting their videos. They share their bats during feeding time, bath time, play time, or during care routines and in doing so show individuals with unique and endearing personalities. Bats play and learn and young bats visibly need nurturing and comfort. In some cases, even the more ornery traits of individual bats make each unique and further help to demonstrate this.
We shouldn't need to see (or think we see) human traits in a species to see it's value. But for those humans who do, bats certainly earn their keep. Books about orphaned and captive bats illustrate the amazement of those newly exposed to bats as they realize that the bats are intelligent individuals. Many compare them to their cats or dogs, in many cases implying comparatively greater intelligence in the bats.
Even bats captured for data collection, which are released fairly quickly, often have time to show us who they are.
3. Food: "No bats, no bananas"
Bats are critical pollinators all around the world. Without bat pollination, we wouldn't have many of the foods we enjoy. And bananas are just the beginning. There would also be no tequila, cloves, marshmallows, avocados, dates, vanilla......the list really goes on and on.
Bats are also responsible for important food because they spread the seeds of foods and spices. These include figs, allspice, chocolate (the cocoa tree).
Their guano is also important fertilizer.
Have you ever seen a memorable positive depiction of bats?
4. Insect Control
Bats safeguard food supplies and protect us from disease because they eat significant numbers of insects. Even small bat species eat up to 2,000 insects per night! Bats are estimated to be worth billions of dollars to agriculture (in the U.S. alone) because their pest control contributions are so significant.
5. Ecosystem Health
There are major ecosystems around that world that depend on bats. The primary plant species of these ecosystems, such as the "tree of life" in the African Savannah that rely on bats either to pollinate them or to spread their seeds. This is not only key to the health and survival of these ecosystems, but is also key in reforestation after areas have been deforested by people or fire (including important rain forests on multiple continents).
6. Bats are cleaner and safer than squirrels!
Rabies can be contracted and carried by any species of mammals. Bats have a reputation as rabies-prone. This is warranted and unwarranted. Very few bats carry rabies (less than half of one percent) and an average of one to two human deaths are caused by rabies in the United States each year. Still, rabies is a serious enough risk that a bite should receive immediate medical attention (and the bat should not be released).
You cannot catch rabies just by being near a bat, or even a colony of bats. A very good breakdown of fact versus fiction is here on Bat World Sanctuary's page. Other rare diseases can be contracted through bat guano, particularly in a closed environment, but these are fairly rare as well.
Squirrels, on the other hand, can give you multiple diseases through a bite, including tetanus. Squirrels are loved by many and seen as cute, but grey squirrels in particular are actually fairly likely carriers of disease. This is largely because they are also an invasive species in many parts of North America where they currently occur and live in close proximity to one another and to humans. They are very likely to approach people and to act aggressively, especially where they have been hand fed.
Bats, by comparison, groom themselves and their offspring frequently, are actually cuter, and are 'biologically appropriate' where they occur. Bats offer far greater health and economic benefit than squirrels, who clearly cannot compete with the billions of dollars bats save farmers in the U.S. alone.
Easy things to do for bats
This first list a bit tongue in cheek, but sadly reflects practices that are not so uncommon. The first reflects common accounts of bat interactions that can be rather humorous, unless you are a bat. The second is a sadly common account from the childhood of many Montanans. The third is from personal experience in a national park, where we humans, as tourists, are too often inspired to impulsively (and illegally) protect our loved ones from non-threats.
1. Don't kill or swat them them with a broom (even wise and kind people have done this, but better tactics are shared below)
2. Don't "fish" for them with a fly rod
3. Don't stomp on them with a giant boot after they are safely captured and about to be removed, no matter how nervous your wife was on the opposite side of the building.
How Not to Remove a Bat (Comedy Bit)
Practical Advice and Conservation Insights & Tips
Safely Remove a Bat from Indoors
If you find yourself in a situation that makes you consider items one or three, above, you've likely found yourself inside a dwelling with a bat. A few helpful steps are as follows.
1. Open doors and windows and calmly leave the room to give the bat time and space to find it's way out.
2. If you can't leave the room initially or if it is headed your general direction, stay still so it can navigate around/away from you more easily.
3. Realize that any time it has to change direction or turn around, it will likely lose altitude. This has to do with physics, so don't mistake this as the bat coming toward you or trying to attack you.
4. If the bat doesn't leave on its own, attempt a strategy such as this one, using a thick glove and safe container, noting the situations in which additional human safety steps are necessary.
5. Note that a bat will be unlikely to be able to take flight directly from the container, and will need a tree or climbable surface, space and time to take off. Keep pets and small children away from the area.
Everyday Ways to Help Bats
Hopefully you won't want to consider any activities from the first list or need to consider activities from the second, but it's better to be prepared. Here some practical, simple, beneficial things you can do.
1. Build or buy a bat house for your garden
2. Make water available for bats in your yard
3. Join bat conservation groups and help educate others about bats (which could be as easy as sharing social media)
All of the above are covered to some degree in one of my favorite bat books by Merlin Tuttle. I threw his book on neighborhood bats in my bag while traveling last fall. It was hilarious how many times someone asked me a bat question (after seeing the book or chatting and having bats come up in conversation) that I just read the answer to.
The Bigger Bat Picture
Better perceptions of bats over the centuries would have eliminated some of the biggest threats bats have faced. Fear led humans world wide to persecute populations of bats that were providing them countless benefits and protections. This is fairly simple for most folks given more ecologically based thinking, but it is relevant still, as colonies still are evicted or poisoned or hazed. As recently as this year, a large colony of bats in Australia was chased away from a maternal colony while babies were too young to move away or fend for themselves.
Alternately, where humans realized the benefits of a large urban colony in Austin, Texas, and allowed a displaced colony back to it's home bridge they've been rewarded with millions of annual tourist dollars via the Congress Street Bridge. The conservation value exceeds the economic benefits by far for bat lovers all over the world that have watched the evolution of groups such as Bat Conservation International, which have impacted people positively, also, while protecting bats.
The full picture of threats to bats is fairly complex and rangers from perceptions to A proper forestry practices of recent decades to a devastating disease (White-nose Syndrome) sweeping the eastern states, killing millions of bats so far.
This is a group of species that need a lot of human help, protection, and understanding (due to the threats we pose), and that we rely on more than most mammals world wide.