Bats: Dangerous Blind Blood-Suckers or Helpful, Biological Pest Control?

  • October 18th, 2021
Rafinesque's Big-eared bat flying in the night
Rafinesque’s Big-eared bat

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Night falls.

A thick, black, curtain of darkness envelops the sky. The air is still and silent.

Suddenly, a creature with long, disproportionate claws with flaps of veiny skin between its fingers, appears in the air flapping its dark-colored skin-wings swiftly.

A shimmer of light gleams off the glistening, prominent, curved fangs in its agape maw.

Blood.

Blood is what it’s after, right?

No, human blood is not what bats feed on, said Dr. John Abbott, chief curator and director of the Department of Museum Research and Collections at The University of Alabama.

Bats are found all over the world, but only two types that range in the tropics are blood-feeders. Abbott said this rumor has unfortunately caused bats to gain a bad reputation when they’re really one of the most helpful mammals in existence.

“There are only four groups of organisms that have ever taken flight in our history,” Abbott said. “Pterodactyls, which are extinct, birds, insects and bats, which are the only flying mammal.

“Bats are of an incredible benefit to us. Bats often feed on insects like moths and beetles, many of which are pests that eat crops.”

Abbott said there are 16 species of bats in Alabama, three of which (gray myotisare, Indiana myotis and Northern long-eared myotis) are listed on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

For the most part, these nocturnal mammals stay out of people’s way, so encounters with them are rare. The occasional bat in the attic does occur, however.

Bats harbor many diseases, Abbott said, but they’re unusual in that they rarely become sick themselves. Some species are being affected by white-nose syndrome, which is a fungus that’s afflicting and killing bat populations in Alabama and the Eastern U.S., particularly cave species that hibernate in large numbers together.

Mexican free-tailed bat crawling on a rock
Mexican free-tailed bat

White-nose syndrome doesn’t affect humans, but it does have an impact on people because it devastates bat populations, which in turn affects insect populations.

Rabies can also be a concern. Most bats don’t have it, but some do.

“If you see a bat during the day on the ground, don’t touch it because it could have rabies,” he said. “That’s rare though. They’re harmless to us other than rare scenarios like that.”

Another misnomer about bats is that they’re blind. Abbott said they can see, but sight isn’t the main way they hunt their prey.

Like dolphins, bats use echolocation through chirps issued from their nose or mouth that bounce off the environment to help them determine the speed and density of objects so they can figure out what are viable prey items.

“What’s neat is that some moths have developed a way to detect bats’ echolocation so they can avoid getting eaten by them,” Abbott said. “So, they’re in an evolutionary race to out-compete one another.”

Abbott said since bats fly with their elongated fingers and not their arms, they fly differently than birds do.

“They’re very acrobatic flyers,” he said. “Bats swim through the air.”

Abbott said one of the unique bat species in Alabama is Rafinesque’s big-eared bat. The reason is in its name. It has giant ears, almost like rabbit ears. They roost in abandoned houses and similar places.

Source

Dr. John Abbott, jabbott1@ua.edu

Contact

Jamon Smith, UA Strategic Communications, jamon.smith@ua.edu

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.