Going ‘Batty’ for Halloween

23 Oct

Halloween is a tough time to be a bat.

Only a month ago, the Flying Mammal had a buffet of available bugs to choose from for its meals. But the cool weather of late fall has drastically reduced the volume of mosquitoes, gnats and other flying insects from which to dine. The chillier conditions and declining food supply has sent some bats into hibernation already, with others preparing for the long, sleepy fast.

Brown bats are common in the United States.

Brown bats are common in the United States.

But if that’s not enough to give bats the blues, their reputation is annually besmirched during Halloween season. In movies, we see Dracula turn himself into a bat, flying around a haunted house and sucking blood from his victims. Kids equate bat costumes with those of witches, goblins and other menaces of the night.

“With the exception of ‘Batman,’ we generally don’t see bats portrayed in a positive light,” says Miranda Dunbar, assistant professor of biology at Southern and a self-proclaimed Defender of the Bat. “But the reality is the bat is actually one of the good guys.”

Dunbar, who has conducted extensive research on bats, has offered to help dispel some of the biggest myths about bats. Here are some of them:

Myth: Bats like to suck people’s blood.
Reality: There are only a few species of bat that consume blood at all, none of which are regularly found in the United States or Canada. And even among the species that do feed on blood, such as the vampire bat, they prefer livestock.

Myth: Bats are dirty animals that often spread rabies.
Reality: Bats are actually very clean, frequently giving themselves and their young tongue baths. And while it is possible to contact rabies from a bat, like many animals in wildlife, you have a much higher chance of getting rabies from raccoons, rats, foxes or dogs. When a bat gets rabies, it often dies within a week, not allowing it to hang around very long to spread the disease.

Myth: Bats are blind, at least during the day.
Reality: Although most have small eyes and don’t have great vision, they can see, even during the day. Some tropical species actually have vision that’s quite good.

Myth: Bats do nothing but sleep during the daytime hours.
Reality: Like other nocturnal animals, bats certainly sleep during the day. But they don’t sleep the entire time. In fact, they often groom and socialize during the day. Yes, they have friends.

Myth: All bats are brown or black in color.
Reality: While most in North America are some variation of brown, the Eastern red bats are actually a fiery red or orange. They are very handsome, but they tend to be a little high maintenance compared with the other bats.

Most bats wouldn't want to mess with this guy, an Eastern red bat.

Most bats wouldn’t want to mess with this guy, an Eastern red bat.

Myth: Other than eating some insects, the bat contributes little to the eco-system.
Reality: Not true. They eat a tremendous amount of insects – sometimes even their own weight in bugs during the course of an evening. But one of the little known facts about bats is that they are the primary pollinators and seed dispersers for many tropical fruits, such as bananas, mangoes and figs, as well as cashews and even for the Agave plant, which is used to make tequila. Their fur gets full of pollen when they eat the nectar of flowers. They then spread the pollen in their travels.

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