A LITTLE BATTY
Flying Fox, a type of megabat that eats, pollinates and disperses fruit plants, Signe Allerslev
BAT APPRECIATION MONTH, A Great Opportunity for Children
Every October is bat appreciation month, and based on my experience, one mammal that should be on the high priority list for educating children about. Do we need to relegate one month of appreciation though? Let’s do a lifetime instead.
As a biologist, who had some of her first field experiences with bats in Central Texas, they are absolutely one of my favorites and one of the most misunderstood species out there. But this is one of those perfect opportunities to teach holistically and immerse every aspect of learning here. First, some batty background.
Bats have been part of the Earth's system for well over 50 million years. Their fossils began showing up in the Eocene Epoch, which is part of our modern Cenozoic Era. There have been over 1400 bat species discovered as of 2021. Of those, they are divided into two categories of bats: Microchiroptera (mostly insect eating bats) and Megachiroptera (nectar and fruit eating bats). Both types occur in the United States, but only two species are the Megachiroptera, or Megabats (unless you include U.S. territories like Guam and American Samoa, then the total is three), and the rest belong to the microchiroptera group. Bats live an average of 30 years if not affected by human caused devastation, such as habitat destruction, and tend to only have one live pup per year during their reproductive years. They are intelligent mammals that evolved from a common ancestor with horses, whales and pangolins and the only mammal to evolve true flight.
Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from Bracken Cave near San Antonio, Texas to set out on their nightly feeding of pest insects. Credit: Michael Durham_Minden Pictures /Bat Conservation International
BATS ARE BIOLOGICALLY AND ECONOMICALLY IMPORTANT
Bats are biologically and economically valuable all over the world. They are responsible for pollinating much of Australia's economically important lumber trees and dry eucalyptus forests. Many tropical and sub-tropical rainforest regions rely on bats to keep their forest ecosystems pollinated and regenerating. Over 500 species of plants rely on bats for pollination and wouldn't exist without them. Many of them are ones you are familiar with, such as bananas, guava, figs, mangoes, vanilla, avocadoes, plantains, and agave. Over 90 of those plants provide important medicines we rely on that wouldn't be possible without bats pollinating them. Entire ecosystems in the southwest actually depend on them and would begin to fall apart if they disappeared. And without insectivore bats, we'd be drowning in pest insects that would devastate farmer's crops all over the world.
BATS ARE A GENTLE, SOCIAL AND NURTURING SPECIES
Bats live in colonies of mostly females and their young. These colonies can number into the millions. Depending upon the species, males may or may not live with the colony. Those that do tend to stay off in smaller groups and those that do not, often live in small groups with each other elsewhere or are solitary until breeding season.
Bats benefit from maintaining a close-knit roosting group because it is important for rearing pups. Photo by Alan Cressler, USGS
To live in groups like this, especially the large female-predominate groups, bats must be able to get along. Studies have repeatedly shown they tend to live in cooperation with each other, even helping out with each other’s young at times, which increases viability rate of offspring. Some species will even bring food back to ailing members of the group and feed them. And though some squabbles may occur over roosting spots, they are short-lived and most vocalizations are socially positive.
Bats and Their Bat Babies
Here's a look at a large nursery colony crowded with babies and moms trying to get to them to nurse.
Mothers, especially, are quite chatty with their offspring. And of all that chattiness, studies have recorded up to 50 different vocalizations in some species with around 30 vocalizations on average. Bats will shy away from humans, but bats in captivity have been shown to be extremely gentle and cuddly with humans, as well as with each other. Mothers and babies especially spend a lot of time in close contact, but bats in general spend a lot of time hanging out with each other communicating and grooming. Some even groom each other and seem to enjoy this “spa” treatment.
Blossom, the Bat and Her Social Bonds
Here is a video of an Australian bat named Blossom. Blossom bats are only found in one particular region of Australia. It’s believed that she was injured by a cat, and in this video was being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. Watch how much she loves contact and grooming.
Megabats and Microbats Bond with Wildlife Rehabilitator
This is another video of both types of bats, Megabats and Microbats, with a wildlife rehabilitator. You can see the strong bond different bat species have with her.
TWO TYPES OF BATS
INSECT EATING BATS
Tricolor Bat (microchiroptera); Insect Eating Bat, Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama, U.S.A., National Park Service, 2012
Approximately 45 species of microchiroptera bats live in the United States and Canada. More live in Mexico and Latin America so our entire continent is populated with bats. Most bats of the world live in tropical or subtropical forests and many are fruit eating or nectar feeding bats, but of the species that live in the United States, the majority are insectivores. In just the United States, it’s estimated that bats eating pest insects save farmers an average of 23 billion dollars a year in crop losses and pesticide costs. And any pesticide reduction on our food is a great thing for us too. This estimate doesn’t take into account the pests eaten by bats in forest ecosystems and their value to the timber industry. Nor does it take into account their estimate of insects eaten that would destroy home gardens or the bat value outside of the United States to the rest of the world. Imagine how much more that total would be if we did take all that into consideration.
NECTAR FEEDING BATS
Lesser Long Nosed Bat Covered in Agave Cactus Flower Pollen, National Park Service, 2010.
In North America, we have two nectar feeding species that migrate to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas every year from Mexico: the Lesser Long Nosed Bat and the Mexican Long Tongued Bat. Both bat species are federally endangered. The Lesser Long Nosed Bat and the Mexican Long Tongued Bat are responsible for pollinating cacti, succulunts, agaves and cardons all over the southwest, including within the Sonoran Desert located mostly in Mexico. In fact, they pollinate the Sauguaro cactus flower there, which only opens one night in spring and is a keystone species. Without the Sauguaro, the entire Sonoran ecosystem would begin to fall apart as a keystone is the glue that holds the system together. Both bats have long, tubular tongues to help them reach nectar inside flowers. In the process they cross pollinate the vast dessert ecosystem's plants. Without the bats, these plants would become non-existent.
Saguero Cactus Flower Blooms that Rely on Megachiroptera Bats, National Park Service
(A few other bats not discussed include a frog-eating bat, a fish eating bay, fruit eating bats and a vampire bat.)
Why We Need Bats
Here’s a short video with a lot of good information for parents who want to teach their children about why we need bats, common bat misconceptions and how we can protect them.
Western Big Eared Bat, Nevada Cave, National Park Service Photo by B.T. Hamilton, 2020
Different Bat Species
This link will take you to a page with some of my favorite US bats, including one that eats scorpions. That's definitely impressive.
Hoary Bat, Isle Royale National Park, 2014, National Park Service Photo
The Case for Vampire Bats by NPT
Part II Coming Soon: A Few Batty Resources
Join us on Part II of All About Bats for a Few Batty Resources you can use with your children when learning about bats.
Written by Laura Lowe
Laura is a professional educator with degrees in Environmental Science, as well as Education, with decades of experience working with children and the environment. She’s also an avid crafter, novice hobby farmer, mom to three daughters and six grandchildren under the age of seven. She spent many years working with bats in Central Texas and is passionate about their conservation. She enjoys every second she can spending time with her husband, children and grandchildren.
More about Laura and Alder and Alouette, here.