Fact Checking Bat Myths

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye on Oct. 28, 2016.

'Tis the season to beware of what goes bump in the night; and what knocks on your door asking for candy. Today let’s take a look at one of the most iconic Halloween creatures, the bat, and fact-check some of what we think we know about them.

Bats are blind

False. Bats can actually see just fine. But at night, when they’re most active, they use echolocation, a form of sonar, to navigate and hunt. Their echolocation is so precise that they can literally dodge objects thrown at them while flying in pitch darkness. In fact, a single bat can locate, chase, catch and eat nearly 2,000 insects per night using echolocation. Mosquitoes beware!

Bats get caught in people’s hair

How did that myth ever get started, anyway? These creatures are able to catch a thousand bugs per hour in the middle of the night. They’re not likely to accidentally crash into anyone’s head. Nor do they intentionally attack humans. Bats are actually quite shy and reclusive and would rather go out of their way to avoid people.

Bats are flying mice

No. They’re not even related to rodents. Nor are they related to birds, though they are the only mammals that can fly. Bats are actually classified into their own order called Chiroptera which means “hand-wing” due to the fact that the bones that make the wings in bats are the same bones that make the hand structure in other mammals, including humans.

Most bats have rabies

Mostly false. Sure, in rare occasions, some bats have been found to have rabies, but the same is true for a lot of other animals. Bats are mammals, just like humans, and therefore able to carry and transmit the rabies virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only about six percent of bats submitted for testing have rabies. And most of those were ones that were clearly sick or could otherwise be captured. Definitely not a representative sample of the wild population.

Research suggests that less than one half of one percent of all bats actually have rabies. So statistically speaking, we should be less scared of the disease carried by bats than the long list of diseases carried by mosquitoes, one of the bat’s favorite foods.

Bats are vampires

Not in our country at least. There is such thing as a vampire bat, however, that lives in the tropics of Central and South America. They are the only mammal known to feed exclusively on blood. Their usual victims are sleeping livestock and despite folklore, vampire bats do not drink enough blood to harm the animal, although the bites can sometimes get infected.

Vampire bats live in colonies usually of around 100 animals, although some colonies have been found to reach 1,000 or more. In the darkest part of the night, vampire bats emerge from caves to feed but they don’t attack their prey directly. Instead, they land on the ground and approach on all fours, using a heat sensor in their noses to locate warm spots where blood flows just beneath the animal’s skin. They bite, not with fangs but by making an incision with small, sharp teeth and lap up the blood with their tongues. Their saliva contains an anticoagulant that keeps the blood from clotting. They feed on a host for up to 30 minutes, drinking the equivalent of a spoonful or two.

Vampire bats have actually proven rather beneficial to humans. Researchers have studied the anticoagulant chemicals in the bat’s saliva and developed a medicine from it to treat heart patients. Care to guess what they named it? Draculin.

Some scary truths

While most bats are relatively small, there are species of fruit bats that can get rather large. The most notable of these are the Indonesian flying foxes which can have wingspans of up to six feet. But not to worry, these giant species live only in tropical regions outside the Americas.

Here at home, the most commonly encountered species are the little brown and big brown bats. Those are the ones we most often find invading our attics in the summer and only the big brown bat uses buildings in winter. Other relatively common species are the red bat, hoary bat, and silver-haired bat. Less common species include the evening bat, Eastern pipistrelle, and Keen’s myotis.

On an especially scary note, the Indiana bat is so rare, it is listed as federally endangered and the Northern long-eared bat was recently listed as federally threatened due to dramatic population declines as a result of white-nose syndrome.

So this Halloween, don’t be “blind as a bat” to the fact that bats are quite amazing, misunderstood creatures. And while their likenesses may make for great decorations, they’re really not that scary.

Unless of course you’re a mosquito.