Acknowledging bats – our ecosystem heroes
Throughout human history, bats, the only flying mammals (popular pub quiz question by the way), have been feared by people, most likely because of their nocturnal and mysterious behaviour.
From Batman to Dracula, the bat is a symbol that is often linked to violence or horror, but what people may not know is that bats play an essential role in the environment. Bats are highly sensitive towards changes in biodiversity, so rest well in the knowledge that if you see bats, your local environment is probably very healthy.
UK law protects all bat species and prohibits any activity that may disrupt, damage or destroy bat roost colonies unless a specialist bat survey is carried out beforehand. You may have found this out the hard way when filing for a loft extension or if you plan on demolishing an old building!
Variety is the spice of life
There are approximately 1400 different species of bats worldwide and they all come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
From the golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus) with a wingspan of 5ft 6 (larger than some people), to the bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), which is about as big as, you guessed it, a bumblebee (and is also the world’s smallest mammal).
Around the world, bat species can be found in all environments such as rainforests, deserts, woodlands, caves and even cities where they live in things like buildings or under bridges.
In the UK, bats use natural holes and cavities, woodpecker holes, tree hollows and gaps behind bark, or man-made ones, such as holes in buildings, for roosting in.
Blood sucker or bug eater?
Yes, there are some bats that rely on blood for food. Specifically, only three species of the Desmodus genus and all three are only found in South and Central America.
Most bats only eat insects. There are some vegetarians who prefer fruit and some that even eat frogs or pollen, but in the UK, all 17 species eat insects exclusively. They may not suck your blood, but they will definitely eat the biting, annoying midges, mosquitoes and flies that might do.
Not only do bats eat the insects that annoy people, but they also midnight snack on pests that might otherwise eat and destroy our crops.
Bats save farmers and agriculturalists millions in free pest control every year and without them, many of our crops would be at risk.
Unless you happen to be a moth (that can read online articles), bats will not be aggressive to you and will actively avoid humans.
If you happen to be by a river or pond, or somewhere with lots of flying insects in the late evening or at night, you’re likely to see bats here. They will likely fly close to the surface of the water, but may appear to be dive bombing or flying around you, but actually, they’re likely just after the flies and other insects that are attracted to you.
UK bats also don’t carry the rabies virus, which is transmitted by bites or scratches from infected animals.
Do you drink tequila?
If you do, you have bats to thank.
Worldwide, bats serve as pollinators for over 300 different types of fruit. Mangoes, bananas, guavas, peaches and the agave fruit, a key ingredient in tequila, are all pollinated by bats. If you appreciate the odd tipple, bats have been doing you yet another favour without you even realising.
Fruit-eating bats will also use their tongues to reach inside the flowers of fruit plants to collect pollen or eat any insects inside, finishing off any pests that other bats and the farmer may have missed, ensuring that the fruit stays healthy. Tropical fruit-eating bats also disperse seeds in their droppings, which helps to restore and repopulate cleared or damaged areas of rainforests.
Blind as a bat?
Where this phrase comes from, we don’t really know, but it really doesn’t apply as bats aren’t blind.
They have small, very sensitive eyes that help them see in the dark. However, it is not their sight that they are renowned for.
Bats use echolocation, which is a sort of sonar that they emit through soundwaves. If you’ve ever seen the film, or read the comic Daredevil, you’re on the right lines. The sound wave is emitted in clicks by the bats, which bounce off the environment and potential insect prey, before returning to the bat. This generates a picture of the bats’ environment, and is also the reason they never bump into people.
Not all bats can do this though and usually this ability is limited to smaller insect eaters rather than the larger fruit eating bats. The frequency at which these bats emit this sonar varies between species, but is nearly always out of the ranges of human hearing and if you want to hear what they sound like, you’ll need a bat detector.
Curiosity killed the bat
Sadly though, echolocation isn’t always enough to save a bat. Bats face a number of threats that have resulted in the population declines of many bat species.
White nose syndrome is a disease caused by a fungus that affects the nose, mouth, body and wings of bats and has caused the deaths of millions of bats, especially in North America.
As for many species worldwide, the ever-growing human population has caused the loss of natural habitats such as woodlands, forests and hedgerows resulting in large reductions of bat species across the world. Another large cause of bat mortality is attacks by domestic cats and whilst cats don’t usually eat bats, they will catch and play with them.
One study estimated that over a quarter of all admissions by bats into wildlife rehabilitation centres resulted from outdoor cat attacks. Cats are brilliant climbers so it’s not just the bat species that feed close to the ground at risk.
Some cats can easily become “bat specialists” and once finding a roosting colony, can wipe it out in a matter of weeks or even days. If you have cats, we advise keeping them in at night, especially during the summer months when bats are most active and looking after their babies.
This will go a long way to protect bats, as well as prevent your cats from potential injury.
How can you help?
It’s not all bad news, there are lots of ways you can get involved with bats and bat conservation!
Consider joining your local bat group. Bat groups are full of like-minded, friendly, bat-mad people and are always on the lookout for new volunteers.
As part of a bat group, expect to go on ‘bat walks’ in the summer months, where you can learn about all the different species of bats local to your area.
If you fancy the idea of being able to watch bats leave for their nightly feeding time, you can. With a little research, you can easily buy or even make your own bat boxes. More and more bats are on the lookout for new places to sleep during the day and it could be in your back garden!
Check out the bats.org.uk website for advice on how to get started. Just remember, if bats do start using the box, only a licensed ecologist will be able to move or disturb the box, so make sure to plan ahead. It also might be a bad idea to put one up in your garden if know you have lots of outdoor cats in your area.
Donations also go a long way to bat conservation, given that most of the people who work with bat groups are volunteers. The money will either go towards bat research, to fund projects investigating threats such as white nose syndrome, or to bat helplines that help coordinate rescuing injured bats and their rehabilitation.
Visit batcon for more information on the conservation and protection of bats worldwide and bats.org.uk to donate funds, learn more about the 17 species of bats in the UK, advice on how to find a local bat group, or what to do if you find an injured bat.
Guest article written by Alex Lancaster