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The Bat: A Fascinating But Misunderstood Creature - Yellow Magpie

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Published on April 2nd, 2010 | by Yellow Magpie


The Bat: A Fascinating But Misunderstood Creature

A fleeting movement cleanly cuts through the air. A nearby leaf temporarily oscillates in the momentum before returning to its more accustomed, stationary position. The pattern reiterates itself and a swiftly passing shadow can be glimpsed by the keen-sighted. Rapid, roaming and precise, it closes in on its target.

A sonic volley of pulsing chirps morph into one continuous sound. The pattern repeats but on each pass it is augmented, faster, tighter. A final fanfare and the instigator obtains its goal, a succulent fruit member. Welcome to the world of the bat.


Bats have been a source, of fear, mystery, intrigue, and suspense. They have even been associated with the devil. Never has such a small and innocuous creature wielded such power over people.

Bats (Chiroptera) are one of the most successful of all animals. In terms of numbers, they are the most numerous family of mammals. With over 1,100 different types, bats have more species than any other animal.

Flying Mammals

Unlike all other mammals, bats are fliers. This is what makes the species so incredibly successful. The fact that they can fly has allowed them to support their massive populations. In comparison to ground-dwelling mammals, flying meant that bats could exponentially increase the range of their territories and obtain more food in the process.

As a by-product of this, bats’ eating habits became more specialised and varied. Through an evolutionary process, more and more bat species began to emerge until gradually we have the numbers that we have today.

Bat Wing

Bats have not evolved too far from their non-flying ancestors. Their wings still contain parts of the hand. They have a thumb and possess four fingers.

However, the bones in their hands are much more flexible than other animals such as ourselves. This is due to the absence of calcium which means that rigidity is reduced.

Big-Eared Townsend Bat

Types of Bats

All species of bats are split into two types:  the Megas and the Micros. Megas are larger, fruit-eating bats, of which the Flying Fox is one. They do not possess echolocation. The micros on the other hand, are far more numerous and also called the echolocators.

An echolocator, on average, will emit over 350,000 ‘chirps’ or calls in an evening. Echolocators emit sounds which are so high in frequency that the average human cannot hear them, although children do possess an ability to hear some of the calls. Some of these chirps can be over 100 decibels, the equivalent noise emitted from a machine shop in use.

Golden Crowned Fruit Bat (Flying Fox)

Creatures Of Sophisticated Flight

Each wing stroke that a bat produces is a masterclass in efficiency and function. To prevent their delicate ears from being damaged, during every wing-stroke they are closed. As they flap their wings they also force air through their larynx which causes them to emit sound. Every time a bat is in flight there is an incredibly complex orchestration between wing beats, chirps and ear protection. Bats do these incredibly complex tasks without consciously thinking about it.


Echolocators through echolocation create three-dimensional representations through sound. This would be the equivalent of multi-dimensional radar.

To give an idea of just how good microbats’ echolocation is, each chirp can tell a bat, the size, direction and location of an object. Even better still, bats can also tell how hard or soft an object is. Scientists have even recorded bats detecting single strands of spider’s web from a distance of three feet or more. Once a bat has decided upon a source of food using echolocation, it ‘locks on’ reducing the pauses in between chirps so that it eventually becomes one sound.

Vampire Bat Truths

Vampire bats, unlike the legends, rarely feed on humans. They feed mostly on horses and livestock. Often their victims are completely unaware that their blood is being used as a food source as their teeth are razor sharp. If a vampire bat does go for a human they are unlikely to go from the neck as literature and pop culture suggests.

They possess relatively small appetites and can only drink about 20ml or a couple of table-spoons of blood at a single feeding. They are the only known species of mammals to live solely on blood.

Vampire Bat Photo By Trisha Shears

Vampire Benefits

From a human perspective, vampire bats are very beneficial. Draculin, a blood thinning agent that treats heart attack victims, is developed from vampire bat saliva.

According to Birds, a magazine of The RSPB, the largest gathering of bats occurred in Mexico during the 1960s. It was estimated that 50 million Mexican free-tailed bats roosted in caves. So great was the number of bats exiting, that the normal nocturnal bats had to start leaving their roots during mid-afternoon in order to give the other bats sufficient time to leave.

Colony Of Mouse-Eared Bats

Caring For The Young

There can be as many as 15,000 baby bats in ‘nursing roosts’ per square metre (1,400 per square foot). Despite the multitude, mothers can identify their own off-spring by using a combination of sound and smell.

Male bats actually mate while the females are still hibernating. The sperm, which is deposited by the males, stays fertile until the females finally awaken from their slumber and begin the process of fertilisation.

Bats’ Frequent Baths

Despite some people’s misconceptions, bats are one of the cleanest of all mammals. They can spend over an hour a day grooming themselves. They do this by secreting oil from glands in their face. They then rub this oil all over their wings. The oil helps to keep their wings moist and consequently supple, preventing their wings from becoming wizened.

Besides Draculin, another very valuable commodity, that bats create is guano. This is used as a phosphorus fertiliser for the agricultural sector. Its high nutrient content is much sought after and fetches quite a high price, especially in the boutique market.

Brown Long-Eared Bat's Ears Photo By Evelyn Simak

Flight And Freedom

Perhaps the fears associated with bats masks our true feelings. Those of envy. These are the only mammalians that have successful strove towards being free of their terrestrial shackles.

Our culture is heavily populated with millenia-old desires to be able to fly. Our literature, our films and our dance constantly refer to the dream of being airborne. We have ropes, gliders and planes but yet bats have the real ability. They have the true capacity to take off at-whim and soar through the skies. We can only look on in admiration with our feet firmly rooted to the ground.

Bats are remarkable and complex creatures. Their incredible efficiency in flight alone is just one aspect that humanity can learn a lot from.

Big-Eared Townsend Bat

Vital Statistics

  • Bats are quite a varied group.
  • They range in size from 2cm (1 inch) right up to Flying Foxes which can have a wingspan over 2.1m (7 feet).
  • Bats weigh from as little as 65 grammes (2 ounces) right up to 1.5 kg (3 lbs).
  • They can live for up to 30 years.
  • Bats are found in most countries worldwide with the exception of the polar regions and arid deserts. They are most abundant in the warmer climates and thrive along the equatorial regions.

Further Reading

Walker’s Bats of the World is a comprehensive book detailing the worlds of many bat species their physiology and their social roles.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access Walker’s Bats of the World.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain Walker’s Bats of the World.

For Germany: Walker’s Bats of the World.

For France: Walker’s Bats of the World.


About the Author

2 Responses to The Bat: A Fascinating But Misunderstood Creature

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