Today’s post comes from naturalist Laura Penner of Rondeau Provincial Park.
Every Halloween we are bombarded with spooky images: haunted houses, cemeteries, dark nights, deserted roads and, of course, bats!
But how did such an amazing mammal earn such a bad reputation? Perhaps we have Hollywood (looking at you, Dracula!) to blame for some of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding these creatures of the night.
But I’m here to set the record straight!
Here is a collection of facts that will help you learn to love (or at least respect) bats:
1. Bats fly with their hands.
Bats are truly the only flying mammal (don’t be fooled by impostors…we’re in the “flying” squirrel of the south). Bat wings are unique in that they are supported by the arm and four very elongated fingers, which puts the bats in order. chiropterans which literally translates as “hand wing”.
Eastern red bat. Photo credit: MB Fenton.
2. We are definitely outnumbered
Globally, there are over 1000 species of bats representing 25% of all mammal species!
3. Bats are very diverse creatures.
Giant flying foxes can have a wingspan of up to 6 feet, while the Thai bumblebee bat weighs less than a penny.
4. In Ontario, there are 8 species of bats.
All Ontario bats are insectivorous, meaning they only eat insects. Many species can eat between 1,000 and 3,000 insects per night. That’s what I call fast food!
Hoary bat. Photo credit: MB Fenton.
5. Contrary to popular belief, there are no blind bat species.
To locate their prey in the dead of night, many species of bats rely on a highly developed sense known as echolocation. When echolocating, bats emit a series of calls that bounce off objects around them, essentially allowing them to “listen” to their surroundings.
When the bat locates an insect, echolocation calls can increase to about 200 calls per second. This is known as buzz feeding and allows for greater precision while hunting.
Fortunately for us, echolocation calls are too loud for human ears to hear. If we could, they would be louder than your smoke alarm, and we would have a hard time falling asleep!
6. Bats are key elements in rainforests and deserts.
These ecosystems depend on bats to pollinate flowers and disperse seeds. If you enjoy the occasional margarita, you can toast the bats! Bats are the main pollinators of agave plants, which are used to produce tequila.
7. Vampire bats in Central and South America don’t even suck blood…
…they lick it like a kitten drinking milk! Okay, yes, these bats drink blood. But relax: these tiny bats feed primarily on the blood of sleeping cattle, and many times their host doesn’t even wake up during the process. Returning home with a belly full of blood, vampire bats often share the reward of their blood meal with failed roosting companions and have even been known to care for orphaned pups – such loving creatures!
And did you know it? The anticoagulant present in vampire bat saliva has led to the development of a new treatment for stroke patients!
8. For such a small mammal, bats are extremely long-lived.
The oldest insect-eating bat recorded to date lived to be 41 years old!
To counteract such a long lifespan, most bat species in Ontario will only have one offspring per year. But the new mom will definitely have her hands full. These little bundles of joy often weigh up to 25% of their mother’s weight and are voracious, often consuming their own body weight in milk every day!
9. Bats play a vital role in our ecosystem, but many species in eastern North America are in serious decline.
White-nose syndrome affects hibernating bats by causing them to wake up more frequently and search for food and water when they are not available. This burns valuable fat reserves and eventually leads to the death of the bat. This disease is caused by a non-native, cold-loving fungus that was first identified in New York State in 2006. It has spread rapidly eastward and into Canada and has killed approximately 6 million bats!
10. You can help the bats!
To ensure that Ontario’s bat species exist for future generations to enjoy, there are a few simple things you can do:
- Build a bat box: Bat boxes are easily built (or purchased) and provide bats with critical resting places. Not only is this beneficial for the local bats, but you will also be able to sit back and watch these incredible acrobats as they hunt for insects high in your backyard.
- Give hibernating bats some peace and quiet: Entering caves or abandoned mines can disturb bats and reduce their ability to survive the winter.
- Report any strange behavior: If you see bats flying during the day during winter or see dead bats, call the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre, Natural Heritage Information Center or your local MNRF office.
Do you want to know more about the bats you can see in Ontario?
Pick up a book. The Photographic Field Guide to Ontario Bats or any book on bats by Dr. Brock Fenton will help you determine what bat species are found in your area.
Since bats are nocturnal, you may need more than a field guide to help you identify which species are swooping around your streetlight. Relatively inexpensive bat detectors can be used to convert bats’ ultrasonic echolocation calls into sounds we can hear. With a little practice, you can learn to recognize different bats by their calls.
Many of our parks offer bat programs where you can go for an evening walk with a naturalist and listen to the calls and chirps of bats echolocating through a bat detector! What a great way to spend the night!
Do you have any questions about bats? Tweet us at #AskanOPNaturalist and one of our expert naturalists will be happy to help you.