Breaking the bat myth

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Sometimes there’s no time to venture out to a remote location in search of wildlife. That’s why I love to explore my favorite cities and find urban wildlife. I recently went on an adventure to say hello to some wild city dwellers that also happen to be a popular symbol of Halloween … BATS!

Bats don’t have the best reputation. Let’s clear up three common bat myths so we can all start enjoying them.

MYTH: Bats are blind.

Bats can see, but just like us, it’s hard for them to see in the pitch-black dark of night. To help their nighttime hunting, bats use echolocation. Echolocation allows the bats to use sound waves to help them detect other things, such as insects, that may be flying through the night sky.

MYTH: Bats attack humans and suck their blood.

All bat species have gotten the reputation of being bloodsuckers because of one type of bat: vampire bats. Only three out of the more than 1,100 bat species in the world are actually vampire bats. None of the vampire bat species lives in Texas or any of the other 49 United States. Vampire bats live in tropical areas in Latin America, and they very rarely bite humans. They do drink blood from animals, but they don’t suck it out with fangs. While an animal, such as a cow, is sleeping and unaware, the vampire bat makes a small wound and licks up just a teaspoon of blood. The wound is too small to actually hurt the animal, so it wakes up without knowing the bat was even there.

MYTH: Bats are creepy creatures of the night that we should be afraid of.

Bats are creatures of the night, but only because they are nocturnal and do all their hunting at night. We should be thankful for all the hunting they do because it helps us! Many bats eat insects and other pests that bother us such as mosquitoes and flies. Other bats eat fruit and flowers. Thanks to these batty diets, bats spread seeds and pollinate flowers. That means there are new plants, flowers, and crops growing that benefit us.

While many other people may like to buy into the myth that bats are scary and dangerous, you’ll know better. They’re just living their lives and doing their part to keep our planet beautiful!

Texas is home to 32 of the 47 bat species found in the United States. Bats like warmer climates, so many species live in the southern United States and Latin America. The Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), also referred to as the Brazilian free-tailed bat, is the official flying mammal of Texas. You can find thousands upon thousands of these bat species living under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, TX. It is the largest urban bat colony in the world!

During the spring and summer months, anywhere from 750,000 to 1.5 million bats roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge. The bridge became a popular bat hangout in 1980 after the completion of some renovations. Every night around sunset, the bats leave their hideaway to hunt. They return the following morning around dawn. In a single night of hunting, this bat population eats an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects. The nightly cloud of bats has become a popular tourist attraction in Austin. I got to experience it for myself in September and I must say, it is quite a sight!

If the bridge colony in Austin is impressive, the bats of Bracken Cave will blow your mind! Located just outside of San Antonio, this cave is home to more than 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. The winged mammals have been living in the cave for 5,000 years. In one night of hunting, this bat colony eats 200 tons of insects. Bat Conservation International (BCI) owns Bracken Cave, which is usually closed to the public. However, the cave opened to the public for the first time in the fall of 2011. Nature Bridge Cavern works with Bat Conservation International to organize tours of Bracken Cave, allowing more people to experience the Bracken bat flight. Since the United Nations declared 2011-2012 the International Year of the Bat, be looking for more bat viewing times on Natural Bridge Cavern’s website when the bats return next spring. This is something you won’t want to miss!

If you can’t make it to Bracken Cave or the Congress Avenue Bridge, stop by the Mountains and Desert exhibit in Texas Wild! to see our two bats species: long-nosed bats and pallid bats.

Bats usually migrate south in late October to spend the winter in warmer temperatures. Populations at Bracken Cave and the Congress Avenue Bridge are largest in August, September, and early October when pups join their mothers to go hunting. However, you can still see plenty of bats at any time between March and October. Whether you’re bat watching at one of these places or in your own backyard, be mindful that we have no reason to be fearful of these mammals!

As with all conservation stories, there are some challenges and threats to the species. I’m sorry to have to tell you that bats are among some of the most endangered species on the planet. Here in the United States, seven of our 45 bat species may be headed toward extinction.

The endangered Mexican long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis) lives mostly in Mexico, but a portion of the population spends its summers in the Big Bend area in southwest Texas. The Mexican long-nosed bat is large compared to other bat species in America. Its body measures between 3 and 4 inches long. It is named for its long nose, but really the bat’s long tongue is its most important feature. Its tongue can stretch up to 3 inches outside of its mouth to feed on flower nectar. The long-nosed bat, along with other nectar-feeding species, is an incredibly important pollinator that helps fertilize plants.

This bat was listed as endangered in 1988 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is also listed as endangered on a state level in Texas and New Mexico. It’s difficult for biologists to estimate how many Mexican long-nosed bats are left since it is a migratory species that moves around depending on the season. One estimate is that 50 percent of the population has disappeared in the past 10 years.

What can you do to help the Mexican long-nosed bat and other endangered bat species?

  • Do not use pesticides or dump chemicals into waterways.
  • Stay out of caves that are gated or have signs posted. Even if a cave isn’t marked as a bat home, be careful before entering and make sure you are not disturbing the bat’s habitat.
  • Never shoot, poison, or harm bats.
  • If you come across a bat in the wild, leave it alone. Just like many other wild animals, bats may become aggressive if they feel threatened. Bats that are on the ground are likely to be sick and should be avoided. Do not touch or pick up a bat if you see one on the ground. Call animal control or another local wildlife expert to take care of the situation.
  • If you’re excited about what you’ve learned about bats, consider installing a bat house in your backyard. You can do some bat watching from the comfort of your own home!

Since bats bring to mind images of Halloween, I must ask – what are you dressing up as this Halloween? Have any animal costumes in mind? Send pictures of you in your Halloween costume to me at Sam’s Inbox (safarisam@fortworthzoo.org). You might get to see your picture on my blog!

Don’t forget to stop by the Fort Worth Zoo this weekend for Boo at the Zoo. This event isn’t spooky or scary since it takes place during the day from noon to 5 p.m. There will be food, games, shows, animals and of course … plenty of CANDY! For details visit the Fort Worth Zoo website.

If you hear anyone spreading bat myths this Halloween, be sure to set them straight so more people can start to appreciate these fascinating creatures. I know I can count on you all to get the word out!

Happy Halloween and, as always, happy exploring!

 

VOCABULARY

Aggressive: (adjective) inclined to attack even when unprovoked
Appreciate: (verb) to recognize the quality, significance, or greatness of something
Benefit: (verb) to be helpful or useful
Climate: (noun) the typical weather conditions (such as temperature, precipitation, and wind) in a region
Colony: (noun) a group that populates a particular area
Detect: (verb) to notice or discover the existence of
Echolocation: (noun) A method used for locating objects and determining their speed through the use of reflected sound waves. A sound signal is produced; the amount of time it takes for the signal to reach the object and for the echo to return is used to determine the object’s distance.
Endangered species: (noun) a species at risk of extinction
Extinction: (noun) a coming to an end or dying out
Fearful: (adjective) frightened, afraid
Feature: (noun) a prominent or distinctive aspect, quality or characteristic
Fertilize: (verb) to make fertile, allowing reproduction to take place
Impressive: (adjective) striking or remarkable
Mammal: (noun) a warm-blooded animal with a backbone that breathes air and has hair at some point in its life
Migrate: (verb) to change location periodically, especially by moving seasonally from one reason to another
Migratory: (adjective) characterized by migration, tending to change location periodically according to seasonal changes
Nectar: (noun) the sweet juice of a fruit or plant that attracts insects and birds
Nocturnal: (adjective) active at night
Pest: (noun) an annoying person or thing, a nuisance
Pollinate: (verb) to transfer pollen from an anther of one flower to the stigma of another flower, allowing for fertilization to take place
Pollinator: (noun) an animal (such as an insect or bat) that carries pollen from one flower to another, allowing for fertilization to take place
Pup: (noun) a baby bat
Remote: (adjective) secluded, far away from human development
Renovation: (noun) the act of restoring a structure to a newer, better condition
Roost: (noun) a perch where birds and beds rest or sleep
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Ton: (noun) a unit of weight equaling 2,000 pounds
Urban wildlife: (noun) city-dwelling wildlife
Venture: (verb) to make or embark upon an adventure, to dare to go

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