I've always been fascinated by bats. They're the only mammals that can truly fly; if that's not cool, then I don't know what is.
Whilst studying for my degree, I was lucky enough to study bats in urban areas for my third year research project. Whilst everyone else had a summer break, I spent an entire summer bat surveying. Totally worth it, as this experience then led to various seasonal jobs assisting on bat surveys for ecological consultants. Really handy way to make extra money, and enjoyable too!
I've also written an article for the Bat Conservation Trust about some public perception research I carried out (more about that later on in this post). Anyway, onto why I love bats… and before you ask, no, I am not a massive fan of the Batman movies.
Bats are extremely varied, with over 1300 species in the world. There are 18 known species found in the UK (I say 'known' as there could be species we haven't discovered here yet, or cryptic species; in 1999, Pipistrelle bats were split into multiple cryptic species!). The adaptations bats have make them an incredible group of animals to study; just the ability of insectivorous bats to echolocate is absolutely mind-blowing!
The 'bumblebee bat' weighs in at just 2g (just over an inch long) making it the worlds smallest mammal, whereas the giant golden crowned flying fox has a wing span of 5 feet. If that's not variation, I don't know what is.
2. Ecosystem services
Bats also provide many ecosystem services, including insect pest control, seed dispersal, and pollination. A single Pipistrelle bat can consume up to 3000 insects per night!
One study suggested that bats provide a service worth an estimated US $1bn (£649m) globally by controlling pests on corn crops.
More than 500 species of plants are pollinated by bats. These pollinating bats are of economic importance to humans, as several harvested plants rely on bats for pollination, including Eucalyptus species used for timber in Australia, and the fruits of the Durian fruit in Southeast Asia, which form after flowers are initially pollinated by bats. Wild relatives of bananas (Musa spp.) are also bat pollinated!
Another species of plant pollinated by bats is the Agave plant, which is used to make tequila.
There would be no tequila without bats.If that's not enough of a reason to at least respect them, I don't know what is!
So why do so many people dislike bats?
I'm permanently baffled by people who don't like animals, so in 2015, I investigated why so many people don't like bats. I undertook a nationally representative research project, where 1000 UK adults were surveyed about their opinions on bats. The results of the project were published by the Bat Conservation Trust, and I've attached it here.
Sadly, I found that 1 in 5 people either dislike or hate bats, so I've decided to debunk a few of the given reasons here:
1. Bats are 'ugly'
I could easily post about a million photos of non-'ugly' bats. The one I've chosen admittedly isn't a species found in the UK, but fruit bats are just undeniably cute. My favourite UK species is the brown long eared bat, they are anything but ugly!
2. Bats fly into your hair
Insectivorous bats (the only type found in the UK) have a very sophisticated method of ensuring they avoid obstacles: echolocation! This amazing ability means that they are generally very unlikely to fly into you. If they do go anywhere near your hair, it's likely that you have a tasty insect flying above your head.
3. Bats are blind
Many species of bats have better eyesight than humans, so I have no idea where this notion came from!
4. Bats feed on blood
There are only 3 species of vampire bat, and there certainly aren't any in the UK. Vampire bats do not tend to feed on human blood, mostly feeding from cattle and other livestock. If you did get bitten by a vampire bat, it would only feel about as painful as a mosquito bite.
Most bats eat insects, pollen, nectar, or fruit. Not scary at all!
5. All bats are rabid
In the UK, only one species of bat (the Daubenton's) has been shown to carry rabies, and hardly any of them actually carry it. The rabies virus found in bats (European Bat Lyssavirus, EBLV) is not the same virus as the rabies associated with dogs; this form of rabies has never been recorded in a native European bat species.
The Animal & Plant Health Agency has tested over 15,000 UK bats since 1986 for EBLV through its passive surveillance programme and only 13 bats have been found with EBVL2 and none with EBLV1. All of these bats were Daubenton's bats.
The chances of us being bitten by bats are extremely slim, even for people who work with them. If you are a bat worker, you must get a rabies vaccination just in case, but the risk truly is minimal.
6. Bats in the media
Bats have been subjected to a lot of bad 'PR' over the years. They're featured in Dracula films and other horror movies, and are often associated with halloween. I believe this has damaged their reputation,and made it harder to get the public to engage with them. Minimising this old fashioned attitude towards them could be a huge step forward for bat conservation, if more of the public realise that they actually aren't scary at all.
Interested in bats?
Realistically, not everyone is going to become passionate about bats, and that's fine. I think the best end goal bat conservationists can hope for is that the public will see the huge environmental and economic value of bats, and that this awareness will lead to increased tolerance and respect for these amazing creatures that often share our homes with us.
If you would like to learn more about bats and get involved in their conservation, join your local bat group and the Bat Conservation Trust. You can attend talks, simply donate, or get involved with practical work including bat surveying, checking bat nesting boxes, and mist netting as you become more experienced.