Within the animal kingdom, mammals are among the most charismatic and diverse. They are admired for their strength and prowess, revered for their graceful elegance, or loved for providing us with a special connection to the natural world. But all too often they are feared or vilified – when they should be appreciated.
There is no other group of mammals about which any or all of these sentiments is more appropriate than bats.
There are approximately 1,200 species of bats worldwide. Bats are extremely diverse in their diets, habitat use, size and global distribution. Though the tropics host the most species, bats occur on every continent except Antarctica, and in every habitat type. Some species can even be found above the Arctic Circle during summers. And bats are the only mammals to have mastered flight.
Bats range in size from the very small bumblebee bat, which (as you might expect) is the size of a bumblebee, to the greater flying fox, whose body is about the size of a rabbit topped off with a 5-foot wingspan.
Dietary specialties include fruit, nectar, fish, frogs … even other bats and blood. But the vast majority of bat species eat insects, including most of the bats that live in the United State – and all of the bats found in North Carolina.
Regardless of their food choice, bats play an important role in the environment. Nectar-feeding bats are vital pollinators of night-blooming plants, including agave (where tequila comes from) and the giant saguaro. In the tropics, fruit-eating bats disperse seeds and help with reforestation. In both cases, bats help improve the gene flow among plants, which makes for a healthier plant community. Closer to home, insect-eating bats consume half their body weight in insects each night. Among the tons of insects consumed are ones that would otherwise cause serious agricultural damage to the tune of billions of dollars per year.
One of the most misunderstood and villainized bat species, the vampire bat, also has an important role to play. Vampire bats feed exclusively on blood from mammals and birds and must take in a lot during brief feeding times (up to a teaspoon per 30-minute feed). This is aided by an enzyme in their saliva that prevents their prey’s blood from clotting and allows the bats to drink freely. This same enzyme is a key ingredient in an important drug used to treat stroke patients: It extends the critical window for treatment from within three hours of the onset of symptoms up to nine hours.
From their crop pollination and pest ingestion duties to their unique contribution to the medical field, bats truly are extreme, and extremely helpful, mammals.
Lisa Gatens is research curator of mammalogy for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.