Can you imagine a Halloween without bats? Unfortunately, that’s a possibility given 5.7 million bats have died in recent years from white-nose syndrome along the eastern United States, a drop of about 80 percent. To come to their aid, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has created a great overview and infographic about these maligned, misunderstood animals.
They tell us that “bats are not birds, they are not giant insects, and they are not flying rodents. They do not build nests. They will not breed like rabbits and rapidly infest your house. They are not blind. They are not flying, disease ridden vermin searching out unsuspecting humans to infect.”
In fact, they are the only mammal that can fly. As we are mammals, too, we share common traits. The bones in their wing are similar to the ones in our hands. Their wing skin is similar to the skin of our eyelids.
Bats are incredibly diverse, making up one-quarter of all mammals. There are huge differences in size among species, from the bumble-bee bat to large flying foxes, which have a 6-foot wing span. Some bats have tiny wrinkly faces while others have faces that look just like a fox’s. Some have big or small ears and long or short tails.
Bats provided valuable ecosystem services. They are important pollinators. Eating fruit, they disperse seeds. Bats also eat tons of bugs. “The thousands of insects they eat each night save farmers millions of dollars on insect control and crop damage. That makes bats the most organic form of insect control you can get.” Indeed, the estimated value of their bug-eating to farmers is somewhere between $4 and $50 billion.
As FWS mentions, some bats do eat blood, hence the association with Dracula and now Halloween, but that’s not really a cause of concern, as these vampire bats live in Central and South American and feed on livestock blood. The saliva of these unique bats has even been used to develop medicines for stroke patients.
FWS recently proposed making one species, the northern long-eared bat, endangered, given there has been a 99-percent drop in their populations due to white-nose syndrome, a “rapidly spreading fungal disease.” FWS and other U.S. agencies are working hard to understand the cause of this disease, which started in eastern New York in 2006 and has since spread to 22 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces.
So what can we do to help the bats? FWS tell us that one percent of wild bats do carry rabies, so if you see one lying on the ground, don’t handle it. If a bat happens to get in your house, call your local natural resource agency so they can remove them without harming them. Otherwise, FWS tells us to observe rules about cave closures — and generally avoid caves with hibernating bats. Cavers should really decontaminate before entering and leaving a cave.
Given bats are so long-lived — some live up to 30 years — and produce so few pups each year, FSW writes that “it will take many generations for populations to recover from this disease.”
This brief video visualizes many of these ideas:
Image credit: Bat Swarm / Flickr. Zach-o-matic, (2) Massachusetts tri-colored bat with white-nose syndrome / Jon Reichard via U.S. FWS