Myths and truth about bats

Bats are not birds. They are the only mammals that can actively fly. Meaning not only gliding, like in the case of some other mammals, but active flight, using their wings exactly as birds do. Bat wings are actually made of a stretchy skin membrane that stretches between the elongated fingers arms, body and legs of the bat.

Bats appeared on Earth some 50 million years ago, and currently we know of more than 1.300 species worldwide. Contrary to legends, bats do not feed only on blood. Exactly the opposite: very few bats (only 3 species out of 1.300) feed on blood. These bat species live only in South America and feed on the blood of cows, chickens or other domestic animals. Other bat species eat fish, nectar or fruit. But most bat species, more than 800 of them, prefer to eat insects. All kinds of insects: mosquitoes, moths, beetles, spiders and more.

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The ears of bats receive the echo of the ultrasound emitted and reflected from various surfaces.

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The nose of bats is similar in function to the human nose, except the nose of horseshoe bats, which emit ultrasounds through their nose.

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Bat teeth are excellent to chew the hard exoskeleton of insects.

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Bats are not blind, their eyes are much better adapted to darkness than the eyes of humans.

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The wing of bats is actually composed of very elongated fingers, and includes also the stretchy wing membrane.

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The forearm of bats is strong and elongated, being an essential part of the wing.

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The patagium is a stretched skin membrane between the fingers, forearm, body and legs of the bat, using which bats become the masters of flight.

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The legs of bats are small in comparison to other body parts, and are used only to catch prey or to hang from the ceiling of the cave.

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Through their construction, the claws of bats are automatically activated by the animal’s weight, and make it possible for bats to hang without effort.

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The fur of bats gives their body an aerodynamic shape, and also keeps bats warm.

To capture these insects, but also for orientation, bats use ultrasounds. We cannot hear these sounds, since they have a very high frequency of over 20 kHz. Bats behave like some living radars: the ultrasounds they emit are reflected from the body of insects, and the echo gets back to the ears of the bat, indicating the exact position of the targeted insect. After this, the bat can easily fly to, and capture the insect.

Another myth about bats is that they are blind. Nothing could be further from the truth, because bats have well-developed eyes, some bats even very large eyes. With these well-developed eyes bats are able to see their surroundings well enough, and even in darkness. Perhaps the most widespread myth about bats is that they come and get entangled in our hair. The truth is the following: their biological, ultrasound-propelled radar, that we talked about earlier, works so fine and precisely that bats can avoid any obstacles, including our magnificent hair. No bat will ever be caught in our hair.

Most often we encounter bats in caves. This is their natural environment, where they form colonies, and the place from where they start, each night, their hunt for insects. In caves bats can form colonies, or hang solitarily. Under no circumstances will bats build nests, they just hang from the ceiling of the cave or roost. But apart from caves, we can encounter bat colonies in the attics or cellars of our buildings, whereas in the tropics we can see bat colonies hanging, like some ripe fruits, from the branches of trees. Bats of Europe and Romania can also use hollow trees to find shelter.

Bats of Romania

In Romania we currently have knowledge about 32 species of bats, all of which are insectivores, meaning they eat only insects. As in other parts of Europe, Romanian bats can be found primarily in caves, attics or basements of buildings or in hollow, old trees. Romania is home to some of the largest bat colonies in Europe, with approximately 100,000 bats. Typical cave-dwelling species are the greater horseshoe bat, bent-winged bat, or the greater mouse-eared bat.

But we have also typical woodland species, hunting and living mainly in forests, such as Bechstein’s bat or the long-eared bats, who received these names because they have indeed very large ears. Another typical woodland species is the Barbastelle, having such a flat nose, that we might think that it crashed into a wall head on. Of course it did not crash into a wall, because this bat species also has that very sensitive biological radar, that allows bats to avoid any obstacle.

Some rare bat species of Romania are the greater noctule, which is the largest bat species in Romania, with the wingspan of almost half a meter, or the northern bat, which has a beautiful fur with golden coloration.

How important are bats to us?

Bats that eat fruit or nectar contribute, just like bees, to spreading the seeds and pollen of plant species. We mean that bats eat these fruit and after that, fly long distances, where the fruit’s seeds get, together with the bat’s guano into a new area, where a new plant can start growing. This way, bats help, also through pollination, over 450 tropical plant species, including those plants that provide us with bananas, mango, avocado, and chocolate. Yes, bats help the cocoa tree to grow in new places, and this way they help us to produce cocoa and chocolate.

Furthermore and this concerns us also here in Romania, bats that prefer to eat insects, eat them in huge quantities. Insects that are hunted and eaten by bats are often harmful pests to agriculture and forestry, but also have negative impact on our lives. Bats eat mosquitoes, moths, spiders, beetles and many other insects. A single Pipistrelle bat (the smallest bat species in Romania) eats about 2.000 mosquitoes per night. Do a simple math exercise, and calculate how many mosquitoes does a Pipistrelle colony of 200 bats eat from 1st April until October 31? The number of insects consumed by such a colony will make you appreciate the work of bats.

Arborele de cacao și avocado sunt doar 2 dintre cele 450 de specii de plante, care beneficiează de activitatea liliecilor - A kakaófa és az avokádó csupán kettő a kb. 450 gazdaságilag fontos nővényfaj közül, melyek a denevérek segítségével is terjednek. - The cocoa tree and the avocado are just two of the more than 450 economically important plant species, that rely on bats (Chocolate photo: Олена Полункіна/Wikipedia, bat photo: Szilárd Bücs, avocado photo: Wikipedia)

Why do we need bat protection and what can I do to protect bats?

We need bat protection because all over the world, Europe included, several bat colonies with millions of bats have disappeared. This is the effect of deforestation, tourism in caves, and in some cases even due to their use as food. Yes, you read that correctly, for example in tropical areas people used to eat and are still eating bats. In the 50s and 60s, several bat species have almost completely disappeared in Europe. These are the reasons why bats are currently protected by several laws, including here in Romania.

The easiest thing you can do to protect bats is to spread the truth about them. If one of your friends is afraid that a bat will get entangled in his or her hair, just explain to them that this is not possible. Or if a neighbour complains that bats have eaten the smoked bacon deposited in the attic, explain to them that bats in Romania and Europe eat only insects. During trips in nature, especially in caves, it is important to avoid colonies, and not to bother them. We should not put our lights and torches directed at colonies, we should not make noise or touch bats, because all this affects them and they may not survive the winter period. If you want, you can even help bats in cities, by creating artificial bat boxes, in order to replace those old, hollow trees, which were cut down. Or better yet, let us protect these old trees, so they are not cut down!

Do you agree?