Wildlife

No bats, no chocolate — plus five more reasons you should love bats

From contributing to the production of chocolate to regulating mosquito populations, bats are important animals that play a significant role in the world’s ecosystems

  • Oct 27, 2022
  • 986 words
  • 4 minutes
The pallid bat is known for its unique habit of feeding almost entirely from the ground. Unlike most other North American bats, this species captures little, if any, prey while in flight. With its huge ears, it can detect insects simply by listening for footsteps, and it can respond accurately to a split-second sound from up to 16 feet away. (Photo: J. Scott Altenbach, Bat Conservation International)
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Bats have long been associated with vampires and witchcraft, believed to suck the blood out of innocent creatures. But bats are not the menacing critters they have been built up to be. In fact, bats are a vital component of our economy and environment, helping with pollination, controlling pests, fertilizing plants and more. Did you know that without bats we probably would not be able to enjoy tequila or chocolate? 

The only mammals that fly, bats are unique creatures that sleep upside down, “see” using sound and eat hundreds of mosquitoes an hour. Up close, some bats are even quite cute. Canadian Geographic highlights fantastic bat facts and reasons to love these furry flyers. 

Bats come in all shapes and sizes

The second most common mammal after rodents, bats can be found almost everywhere, absent only from extreme environments like the polar regions. More than 1,300 species of bats range from northern Scandinavia to the southernmost tip of Chile and Argentina.

The western small-footed myotis rears its young in cliff-face crevices, erosion cavities, and beneath rocks on the ground. Some females care for their pups alone, while others form small groups. (Photo: J. Scott Altenbach, Bat Conservation International)
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The smallest bat is the Kuhn kitty bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), also known as the bumblebee bat or Kitti’s hog-nosed bat — named after its unique appearance. About the size of a large bumblebee, this bat, found in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar, weighs less than a penny and is just  3.3 cm long. The biggest bats, known as flying foxes (Pteropus), are about 40 cm long and can have a wingspan of up to 1.5 metres. Flying foxes are found in Southeast Asia, Australia and East Africa. 

The most common bat in Canada is the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus). Unfortunately, the little brown bat has been listed as federally endangered due to white-nose syndrome, a fungus that affects hibernating bats. Other common bat species in Canada include the hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus), the eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis) and the silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans). 

Bats actually have good eyesight

Contrary to the popular saying, bats are not blind. They have sharp vision and can see in dark conditions that humans consider “pitch black.” Although they may not be able to see colour as clearly as humans, their overall vision is much stronger at dawn and dusk as it is tuned to low-light conditions. The misconception that bats are blind comes from their enhanced hearing and nocturnal nature. Most bats hunt at night and rely on echolocation to find the exact location of prey. This means that bats use the echoes of self-produced sound bouncing off objects to navigate. Their eyes assist in low-light conditions, while their enhanced hearing ability allows the animals to locate food. Some bats, like fruit bats, don’t even use echolocation. They consume nectar from flowers so rely on their large eyes to see in the dark.

Bats help with food production

Bats play an essential role in agricultural landscapes by helping to pollinate crops, eating insects and dispersing seeds. Mangos, bananas, agave and cocoa rely on bats to pollinate their flowers as do thousands of other plant species. The magueyero bat (Lepronycteris yerbabuenae) carries pollen back and forth from agave flowers, pollinating the plants that humans use to produce tequila and mezcal. 

Insect-eating bats help control pests that damage crops like corn and soybeans. The Government of Canada estimates that bats provide $3.7 billion in natural pest control services, allowing farmers to use fewer commercial pest control products.

Eastern red bats are North America's most abundant 'tree bats'. They are found wherever there are trees east of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to as far south as central Florida. Eastern red bats roost right out in the foliage of deciduous or sometimes evergreen trees. (Photo: J. Scott Altenbach, Bat Conservation International)
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Bats are in decline 

Bat populations across North America are in severe decline. In Canada, five species of bats are on the Species at Risk list, including the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) and the tri-coloured bat (Perimyotis subflavus). The little brown bat and northern long-eared bat have experienced more than a 90 per cent population drop since 2010, while tri-coloured bats have experienced a 75 per cent population drop during the same time period. 

One of the leading causes of the decline is white-nose syndrome (WHS). This fungus attacks the bats’ skin while they hibernate, causing them to burn off fat reserves too quickly. This, in turn, leads to dehydration, starvation and, ultimately, death. WHS does not affect humans, but humans can contribute to the spread of the disease by circulating the fungus, which can linger on clothes and gear. WHS has killed millions of bats across North America and there is no known cure. 

Bats have also been hurt by  the loss of breeding habitats and declines in insect populations. Pesticides and intensive farming practices have made food harder to find. 

There are things humans can do to help. Creating a bat box is one of the most common ways to help bats. A bat box is an artificial roost designed to give bats a place to “hang” in areas where there are few natural roosting sites. Bat boxes are easy to build and can be attached to trees or walls. There are many other ways to help bats, including removing invasive plant species, providing more green space and gardens that attract insects, and turning off outdoor lights at night.

Bats are much different from birds

Though both have wings, bats and birds are very different. Birds have feathers; bats have fur. Bat wings are also completely unlike bird wings — they are, in fact, their hands, with long fingers and thumbs that run the length of the wing. These wings are covered in patagium, which is a thin membrane. 

Bats typically give birth to one live pup at a time (remember, they are mammals so they don’t lay eggs). A pregnancy ranges from six to nine weeks, depending on the species. Bat pups stay with the mother for four to five weeks until they can fly on their own and forage for food independently.

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