Clever. Affectionate. Helpful. Vulnerable.
Not many people use these words to describe bats. Creepy, ugly, scary or dangerous are far more likely choices – and yet, bats truly are intelligent, sensitive creatures. They perform valuable ecosystem services as pollinators, seed dispersers and insect predators.
“Bats are among the most misunderstood animals in the world,” says Meghann Cant, animal welfare educator for the BC SPCA. Myths about bats abound, most of which perpetuate negative stereotypes.
“Even the most innocuous myths are hurtful on some level,” says Cant. “They stand in the way of us appreciating bats, and taking action to help them when they need it.” Here is the truth behind some of the most common misconceptions:
Myth #1: Bats are blind
“Bats can actually see quite well, especially in low light,” says Cant. Vision is thought to work alongside echolocation: bats look around to see where they are going, while at the same time sending out ultrasonic calls to find insects too difficult to spot with their eyes.
Myth #2: Bats are rodents
“Some people think that bats are just mice with wings,” says Cant. But bats belong to their own order of mammals called Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing” (the bones of a bat’s wing are the same as those found in the human hand). In fact, bats are more closely related to primates than they are to rodents.
Myth #3: Bats like nesting in hair
Bats are often seen swooping towards people’s heads at dusk – but not to get tangled in their hair. “People give off heat and carbon dioxide, which attracts bugs,” explains Cant. “The bats are just attempting to eat these insects, so it only looks as though they are diving for your hair.”
Myth #4: Bats are bloodsuckers
Of the roughly 1,200 bat species, only three feed on blood; these are the vampire bats of Central and South America. “None of the 19 species of bats found in Canada eat blood,” says Cant. Canadian bats eat nothing but insects and other arthropods (spiders, centipedes, etc.). They consume more insects, in fact, than any other nighttime predator.
Myth #5: All bats have rabies
It is true that bats are a reservoir for rabies in British Columbia: they can carry and transmit the disease without showing any signs themselves. “Bats have a reputation for being the main transmitter of rabies,” says Cant. “But the risk tends to be exaggerated.” Random sampling of bat populations has revealed that less than 0.5 per cent of bats test positive for rabies.
On the brink
Sadly, bats are in trouble. They are among the most endangered animals in the world – facing threats from habitat loss, pesticides, diseases, climate change and outright persecution. “Perhaps because they are so widely feared, not much has been done to protect them,” says Cant. “But they need our help!” Visit bcbats.ca to find out what you can do to help bats in your community, including plans for building bat houses to attract bats.