Beleaguered bat deserves a second look

Distracted by bloodsucker lore, benighted folk overlook winged mammal's beneficial qualities

October 29, 2006|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

People are usually quite certain which animal they most fear. Maybe it's mice; or, perhaps, piranha. A creature that nearly everyone dreads, though, is -- boo! -- bats. Imagine them skittering across a moonlit sky. This thought probably makes you see red, the color of blood, since you're probably still convinced that bats want nothing more than to bury their greedy fangs into your flesh.

In these ooky-spooky days of late October, however, bat researchers are asking us to see green and to associate these small, furry animals with ecology. Experts such as those who convened this month in Wilmington, N.C., for the 36th annual North American Symposium on Bat Research, praise bats for their service to the Earth's delicately intertwined ecosystem, not for their blood-sucking ability. This, in fact, is somewhat anemic.

Of the estimated 1,100 species of bats, you see, only three are known to be vampires. These prefer to drink cattle blood to human and aren't found in the United States, but roost in Mexico, South America and in certain Caribbean islands, including Trinidad. (Still, you wouldn't want to be bitten by a bat. It could carry rabies.)

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Oct. 29 Modern Life section had an incorrect telephone number and Web address for Tom Scollins of TS Wildlife Control. His phone number is 410-299-1484, and his Web site is www.tswildlife.com.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Most bats -- including all varieties that make Maryland their home -- are insectivorous, eating up to twice their body weight in insects every night. A single bat can consume 1,200 mosquitoes an hour; a nursing female can eat even more.

For those don't want to use pesticides, the newest organic agricultural method is building a special house to welcome bats into your garden or elsewhere on your property.

"Bats have a bad reputation because they're active at night," said William A. Schutt Jr., professor of biology at C.W. Post College in Brookville, N.Y. "People naturally have a fear of the dark and transpose these anxieties onto bats. Really, they're the equivalent of birds, but after the sun goes down."

"I've seen people do things to bats that they would never dream of doing to a puppy or kitten, yet bats are just about as harmless," said Leslie Sturges, a naturalist with Maryland's Montgomery County park system as well as the director of education at Bat World Sanctuary, based in Mineral Wells, Texas. "People will try to set them on fire or blast them with bug spray. They think bats are insects."

Actually, they are mammals and, like puppies or kittens, feed as babies on milk produced by their mother's body. But bats are considered to be the only mammal that can fly and belong to an exclusive group called chiroptera, or "hand-winged." Usually quite small, they have a disproportionate wing span; a bat with a body that's only 4 inches long can easily spread out in flight to a full 14 inches.

An extremely developed sense of hearing enables bats to navigate in the dark. Their high-pitched twittering, most of which is inaudible to humans, bounces off objects and returns in echoes to their ears. Experiments have shown bats can fly equally well even with their eyes covered.

In general, bats are not dangerous, according to Bat Conservation International, based in Austin, Texas. More people die annually from dog attacks, bee stings, lightning and household accidents than from bat-transmitted rabies.

Those commonly found in the United States have somewhat prosaic names -- red bats and brown bats -- whereas elsewhere in the world hundreds of other species are delineated by their wonderfully odd physiognomies: Horse-headed bats, Long-tongued bats, Big-eared bats, and Free-tailed bats. So numerous are they, bats represent nearly 20 percent of all mammalian species. This fact, combined with their startling longevity, by far the longest of any mammal their size (a bat can typically live for decades; a mouse rarely lives even a year), has made bats, of late, a hot topic for scientific study.

What's already known is they're key to plant propagation through both pollination and seed dispersal. And, though birds tend to drop seeds very near where they eat, bats fly great distances and scatter seeds much farther, making them important to maintaining rain forests in places like Brazil. Eating vast numbers of pests that would otherwise plague us, such as mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies, bats also control crop-damaging insects like potato beetles or gypsy moths that, in too large a number, can damage trees.

"Humans could disappear from the planet tomorrow and nothing would change really, other than for the better. But if you removed bats, we'd be living in a world of pain," Sturges said. Although she can't prove it, Sturges likes to hypothesize that "if there weren't bats, we would probably have to use shovels to get all the bugs out of our driveway each morning."

Tom Scollins, a zoologist who runs his own Baltimore-based company called TS Wildlife Control, says consumers are beginning to appreciate bats' unique role in the environment.

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