We have seen Batmen from Adam West to Ben Affleck, and one common thread that oddly ties them all together is that none of the TV shows, films, the comic books or graphic novels has much to say about bats. How batty is that? Since today is October 1, the first day of Bat Appreciation Month, I thought we should visit the topic but without the cape and special effects.
Let’s be honest, bats are weird. That does not mean, however, that they should not be appreciated and valued. They are the only mammal capable of true and sustained flight (distinct from simple gliding). Almost all bats either are bug eaters (capable of eating 1,200 mosquitos in an hour, making them important in controlling pest insects) or subsist on fruit or nectar (making them important pollinators), yet we fear them as blood suckers. Of the more than 1,100 species worldwide, there are in fact only three bats that live off the blood of animals, none in the U.S., none preys on people, all dining instead on teaspoon-sized meals typically sipped from cows and other similar large critters. Although not blind, bats can find food in total darkness, hunting insects by sonar. Bat droppings, or guano, is one of the richest of fertilizers (guano was Texas’ largest mineral export before oil). The biggest bat, a South Pacific islander, has a wingspan of up to 6 feet; the smallest comes from Thailand and is smaller than a thumbnail.
Bats are in trouble worldwide, with more than half of our native U.S. species in serious decline if not listed as endangered. Pollution, pesticide and destruction of habitat are, as usual, among the common culprits but an added and very serious threat comes from a fungus-caused disease called “white nose syndrome” which decimates whole populations of hibernating bats in North America. To end on a happier note, several years ago my family had the cool experience of renting a house up in the Sierras with an attic filled with bats who created a magical cloud just above us most evenings as we sat outside watching them and the stars.