By Audrey Matusich
October has finally arrived, marking the start of the spooky season. Whether you are taking a trip to a local pumpkin patch, staying in to watch a scary movie, or dressing up like an assortment of creepy monsters, it is easy to get into the Halloween spirit. As a result, I thought it would be appropriate for this month’s “What’s in your Watershed?” article to feature an animal that is often associated with the spooky season, the bat! When one first thinks of bats, they may express feelings of discomfort or fear, as this creature is often connected to vampires or haunted houses. However, I write this article to shed some light on this delightful animal and share its important role in ecosystems around the world.
Historically, bats developed a negative reputation, linked to horror stories about blood thirsty vampires. And while the vampire bat does exist, feeding solely on blood, vampire bats make up just a few of the thousands of species of bats that exist; and no vampire bats are native to the United States. Not only have bats been connected to old tales of Dracula, but their reputation has continued to remain negative, thanks to movies and TV. Who could forget bats flying out of the chimney in Jumanji or biting Meredith in an episode of The Office? While these scenes have remained vivid in my brain over the years, I continue to hold a fondness for these flying critters.
Since reading Stellaluna in the 1st grade, I have always had an appreciation and love for bats, often feeling these flying creatures were misunderstood and irrationally feared. Bats are unique to the animal kingdom as the only mammal capable of flying, and I looked forward to seeing them come out at dusk to feed on insects during summer trips to Lake Tahoe. There are 25 known bat species native to California, including the California leaf-nosed bat picture below. The bat species native to California often have large ears and beady eyes, giving them a “spooky” image. However, the presence of bats is extremely beneficial, making them a critical member of their ecosystems.
One major benefit of bats is their role in insect control. Many species of bats are insectivores, meaning their diet consists of insects. These bat species use echolocation at night to feed on insects flying around. This helps prevent pest insect species from damaging crops, saving the US over $3 billion in pesticides each year. Additionally, many bat species, such as the “flying fox” are herbivores, feeding mostly on fruit. These herbivorous bats help spread pollen from plant to plant, as well as dispersing seeds. Fruit bats are largely native to tropical regions and help fruit tree species spread and grow. Bats have also been the inspiration for several inventions, a great example of biomimicry. Engineers have developed wingsuits for base jumpers that resemble bat’s aerodynamic bodies, while bats’ use of echolocation has inspired other technological advances in sonar systems.
While bats provide many benefits to both people and habitats, bat populations have declined significantly in recent years due to various reasons, such as climate change, habitat loss, wind energy development, and disease, especially White-nose Syndrome. Scientists estimate that White-nose Syndrome, which attaches hibernating bats in caves or mines, has caused up to a 97% decline in northern long-eared bat populations, resulting in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pushing the government to classify this species as endangered as opposed to threatened.
Despite the positive impact bats have on ecosystems, these animals are in dire need of conservation. Perhaps, if we were to change society’s perception of bats, these benevolent mammals would be able to receive more protection. So as we enter the witching hour and prepare for a month of tricks and treats, let’s remember to spread appreciation for one of halloween’s biggest mascots, the bat!
Bat Research in California. Western Ecological Research Center (WERC). USGS. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/werc/science/bat-research-california#overview
Benefits of Bats. National Park Service. August 17, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bats/benefits-of-bats.htm
Common vampire bat. National Geographic. 2022. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/facts/common-vampire-bat
Fears, Darryl. A Disease more lethal than covid-19 has nearly wiped out northern long-eared bats. The Washington Post. March 22, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/03/22/disease-more-lethal-than-covid-19-has-nearly-wiped-out-northern-long-eared-bats/
Nguyen, Vy. Bats in California: Types, Distribution Map, and Facts. ThePetEnthusiast. 2022. https://thepetenthusiast.com/bats-in-california/