October 14, 2004 | By: Ellen Brightwell

Bats are shrouded in mystery often based on common misconceptions. In reality, these misunderstood mammals perform many valuable services for us including insect control and crop and plant pollination.

“Bats are not flying rats. All bats do not carry rabies. And only three of the nearly 1,000 bat species are considered vampires. Bats are not blind and do not try to become tangled in hair," said Mike Lacki, research specialist in wildlife ecology and management with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

"The German word for bat is Fliedermaus," Lacki said. "A comic opera, 'Die Fliedermaus,' was performed at the Lexington Opera House in the 1940s. At one time, a poster of the play was in the art gallery on the bottom floor of the Lexington Opera House."

Bats are not rodents and are not even closely related to that group of mammals, according to Lacki. Bats are more closely related to shrews and primates than rodents. Today, bat forms closely resemble fossils dating back more than 50 million years.

Researchers "find no credible support for the hypothesis that undetected bites by bats are a significant factor in transmitting rabies to humans," stated a resolution adopted at the 29th North American Symposium on Bat Research. The resolution further stated, "Rabies virus has not been isolated from bat blood, urine or feces, and there is no evidence of air-borne transmission in buildings. Bat rabies accounts for approximately one human death per year in
the United States. Statistically speaking, pets, playground equipment and sports are far more dangerous than bats."

Rabies naturally occurs in many wild animals. A higher incidence of rabies is found in skunks, raccoons and foxes than in bats. A bat contracts rabies by contact with another organism that is rabid. Once infected, the bat will die.

"Bat bites of humans are uncommon and rabies resulting from such bites are extremely rare - less than one-half of one percent," Lacki said. "However, bats can harbor the rabies virus and should be handled with care, as should all unfamiliar animals. Anyone finding a bat on the ground, or one acting abnormally, should leave it alone, because a healthy animal will fly off. Parents and caregivers should caution children to avoid strange animals."

Bats are not blind. In fact, they can see quite well in the dark. It is fiction that bats fly into people's hair. If anything, a bat will try to avoid people.

A bat uses a sophisticated echolocation, similar to the sonar used by dolphins, to avoid objects and locate food in total darkness. The bat lets out a high-pitched pulsating sound that bounces off objects and echoes back providing information on the size, shape, identity and even flight direction. As the bat gets closer, the pulses increase refining the location of the object.

"Bats are very fastidious and spend much of their resting time grooming and cleaning themselves," Lacki said. "They are among the cleanest animals and also are exceptionally resistant to disease."

The legend of vampires was known in eastern Europe long before explorers discovered vampire bats in Central and South America in the 1500s, according to Lacki. No vampire bats are native to Europe or Asia.

"The vampire bat is associated with the legend, rather than the legend originating with the bat," he said. "The mystical connection between bats and vampires originated in Eastern Europe and is associated with a Transylvanian prince named 'Vald Dracul,’ who apparently was brutal to people. The prince was known as 'the impaler,' because he would put his subjects on
spikes. The legend of Dracula evolved from this prince."

About 70 percent of bat species eat insects such as mosquitoes, moths, grasshoppers, locusts and other crop-destroying pests. Many bats can eat one bug every six seconds.

"Since bats fly over fields and feed extensively, eradication is not a good idea, especially in agricultural areas, where they may roost in barns," Lacki said.

Bats are the only mammals that truly fly. They have structural adaptations that allow for full-powered flight. "Flying squirrels" and "flying lemurs" actually glide or parachute via a furred membrane.

Some bats are "vegetarians" that pollinate fruits and vegetables including bananas avocados, peaches and cashews.

Bats provide several other benefits to people. The vampire bats' saliva contains a chemical that keeps blood from coagulating. This chemical could be valuable to human health. Studies of bats have contributed to development of navigational aids for the blind, vaccine production and drug testing, and a better understanding of low-temperature surgical procedures.

In some parts of the world, Bats are depicted as heroes. In China, the bat is expressed as a symbol of happiness and good luck in art and handicrafts. The value of a Scottish home or castle increases when a colony of bats is found in it. Native Americans considered bats protectors. A bat often was drawn on the corners of sand paintings to guard them.

"Bats play a critical role in many systems in nature," Lacki said. "Unfortunately these mammals are negatively viewed because of various misconceptions. Bats are not a threat to us; they provide many benefits we would not have otherwise. I hope people can begin to appreciate and understand bats."


Writer: Ellen Brightwell 859-257-4736 ext. 257
Source: Mike Lacki 859-257-8571