Celebrating International Bat Week
It’s International Bat Week from October 24-31, so here are some spooky, but true, facts about bats of the world!
•Flying foxes (seen above and below) are the world’s largest bats, with a wingspan of up to 6 feet! Though flying foxes may look scary, they are harmless and serve a vital function in their rainforest homes as pollinators and seed dispersers for many native tropical trees.
• Flying foxes and other fruit bats may appear intimidating due to their large size, but they pose little threat to humans. They are gentle frugivores; feeding on fruits, as well as flowers, leaves, pollen, and nectar. To hydrate, they swoop down over the water and then after landing, lick the water from the fur on their belly. They also drink by licking dew from leaves.
•The bumblebee bat is the world’s smallest, about the size of your pinkie fingernail.
•There are 3 species of bats that feed on the blood of other animals: the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, & the white-winged vampire bat. All vampire bats reside in Latin America, and indeed I have personally seen fresh, bloody bite wounds on horse’s necks from the nocturnal feedings of these hungry bats.
• There are over 1,330 species of bats, in fact, they are the second most diverse group of mammals on earth. New species continue to be discovered, so the number is growing!
• While not exactly immortal, many bat species can live 30 years or more.
• Bats can fly up to 60 miles per hour.
• These creatures of the night can locate food in total darkness by emitting high-pitched sounds and listening for the echoes.
•Other species, like those in the fruit bat family, don’t use echolocation, relying instead on their large eyes and sense of smell for locating the scent of the sweet, ripe fruit they dine on.
• Baby bats are called pups & mama bats can find them among thousands of others by their unique voice & scent.
• Some bats fly south for the winter, while others hibernate. Hibernating bats can survive freezing temperatures, even encased in ice!
• Many species are endangered due to loss of habitat, as well as a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome.
Bats Play Vital Ecological Roles
• INSECT CONTROL: Bats are able to consume their body weight in insects each night, making them a great natural source for mosquito control!
• POLLINATION: Other bats eat fruit or nectar and therefore aid in pollination. Tropical fruit species including bananas, mangoes, and guavas depend upon bats as their pollinators, as does the agave and iconic saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert.
• SEED DISPERSAL: Tropical fruit-eating bats are vital in dispersing the seeds of the plants they eat, far and wide across the tropical rainforest habitats in which they live.
Bats Face Many Challenges
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists +24 of the world’s bat species as Critically Endangered, +53 others are Endangered, and +104 bat species are considered Vulnerable (as of 2019).
Threats include many of the same ones facing other mammals; like habitat loss and pesticide exposure, competition and predation by non-native species, and climate change. They are also killed during the mining of guano in the caves they inhabit, killed by wind turbines, killed due to misguided myths, hunted for ‘bushmeat’ and traditional medicine, and from diseases like White-nose Syndrome.
My Adventures with Bats
I’ve been lucky to see bats in many parts of the world; from Texas, viewing millions of Mexican free-tailed bats, to Central America where I’ve seen the wounds on livestock from vampire bats, to Borneo’s Gomangtong Cave with its +100,000 wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats, to my favorite bat of all time; the Honduran white bat seen below.
The Honduran white bat (Ectophylla alba), is also called the Caribbean white tent-making bat. They are found not only in Honduras but also in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. They are characterized by having distinctive, entirely snow-white fur, which is only found in six of the roughly 1,300 known species of bat.
Notice the yellow-orange coloration of its ears, nose, and lips. Recently, scientists discovered that the color originates from carotenoid pigments ingested from the bat’s primary food source – the fruits from a particular species of fig, Ficus colubrinae.
The bats roost during the day in small colonies on the undersides of leaves, particularly those of Heliconia, a type of bird-of-paradise plant. The bats modify these leaves by cutting the leaf’s central rib with its teeth, making it fold over into a v-shaped tent. This protects the bats from rain, sun, and predators, allowing them to rest peacefully.
I watched this group of roosting bats while hiking in a lowland rainforest tract near the east coast of Costa Rica.
Slideshow of Bats from Texas and Borneo
The slideshow below depicts bats from two areas, Texas and Borneo, that I observed as a birdwatching tour guide with Steve Shunk of Paradise Birding.
It begins with Frio Cave in Texas’ Hill Country, which is home to the world’s largest bat colony, with more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats. It is a key maternity site for this species, and females congregate there each year to give birth and rear their young. Mexican free-tailed bats are an essential predator of corn earworm moths and other crop pests, and the Frio colony alone is estimated to consume over 100 tons of these moths every summer night. Each night they fan out over a 35-mile radius, some flying up to 10,000 feet.
Frio cave was discovered in 1789 by Spanish settlers and has been mined for its guano ever since. The guano is used for high-quality fertilizer as well as an ingredient in explosives – having a high content of ammonium nitrate.
The second half of the slide show depicts flying fox bats from several sites in Borneo, including Mataking Island and Gomantong Cave, which is also home to around 200,000 wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats as well as several other species. We observed 1,000’s of bats emerging at dusk to feed, pursued by bat hawks as they exited the caves.
There’s nothing more fascinating than waking up at dawn to the raucous noise of 100’s of flying fox fruit bats vocalizing from the treetops above one’s cabin in the tropical rain forest!
Learn More About Bats
Learn All About Bats and How to Sketch them!
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