Coolest Bat Species ProtectionProtecting North America's Coolest Bat Species

Protecting North America’s Coolest Bat Species 

Bats often get a bad rap. They are mostly known as characters in spooky myths or Halloween stories. But these flying mammals are responsible for keeping ecosystems in balance and our food economy humming.

Types of bats and their abilities

Bats make up one fifth of all living mammal species and are found everywhere on Earth except the ice-covered poles. They first appeared on Earth more than 50 million years ago, long before humans. While many people assume that bats are related to rodents due to their size, taxonomic studies show that they are more closely related to horses.

All 1,462 known species of bats are from the order Hand wings, which means “hand wing” in Greek. The smallest species, the bumblebee bat found in Southeast Asia, measures only 1 to 3 inches and weighs less than a tenth of an ounce, while the largest species, the giant golden-crowned flying fox in the Philippines, has wingspan up to 6 feet.

Like toothed whales, bats use echolocation—sound cues—to navigate and locate prey. Fishing bats, for example, can detect a minnow’s fin, as thin as a strand of human hair, protruding just a few millimeters above the surface of the water. The African heart-nosed bat can hear a beetle walking on the sand from more than six feet away.

However, this bat superpower diminishes with noise pollution. When Pallid Bats are exposed to even low levels of noise, their prey finding ability is halved and the time spent searching for prey increased almost threefold, according to research published by The Royal Society in 2021.

Bat species in North America

There are 154 species of bats in North America alone, and each has adapted to occupy a unique niche in the ecosystem. Winifred Frick, chief scientist at Bat Conservation International, says her “all-time favorite bat” is the pallid bat, which lives in desert habitats in the western US and Canada and central Mexico. They have large ears to listen for jostling prey, which include crickets, cicadas, lizards, rodents – and even scorpions, whose venom doesn’t bother them.

The Bat of the Canyon

Frick is also enamored of the continent’s smallest species of bat, the canyon bat, which roosts in cracks and crevices of boulders or rock faces across much of western North America. They take off every evening around sunset to look for bugs. Although most bats have only one young per year, canyon bats give birth to tiny twins.

Hawaiian gray bat

Endangered Hawaiian hoary bat (Photo: US Geological Survey)

The Hawaiian gray bat holds the record for the longest transoceanic dispersal of a land mammal. His ancestor made the 3,600 km journey from North America to Hawaii about one million years ago. Native Hawaiians call this bat ‘Ōpe’ape’a: pe’a, which refers to the shape of the cantilevered canoe sail. Ancient Polynesian voyagers used these canoes and, like this bat, crossed the vast Pacific Ocean to settle the world’s most isolated island chain.

Mexican free-tailed bat

(Credit: Shutterstock/freelancer ChrisSobalvarro)

North America is also home to the world’s fastest mammal Mexican free-tailed bat. It can reach speeds of 100 mph during short bursts of flight. Bracken Cave near San Antonio, Texas is a summer maternity colony for up to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the largest bat colony on the continent.

Read more: Bat faces are vast and varied

Why are bats important?

Because most bats feed on insects—including pests that can damage crops—humans must help bats thrive. For example, a colony of 150 big brown bats ingest nearly 1.3 million insects per year. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville estimated that it would it costs the North American agricultural industry between $3.7 billion and $53 billion annually if bats disappear.

In Thailand, researchers calculated that a puckered-lipped bat can prevent the loss of almost 2,900 tons of rice per year by eating the white-backed leafhopper, a major rice pest. This natural pest control translates into an annual economic value of $1.2 million, or enough rice flour to feed nearly 26,200 people each year.

Fruit bats in tropical latitudes also provide food security along with healthy forests. Studies show that bats are better than birds at dispersing fruit seeds— especially pioneer species such as figs that help regenerate rainforests. Bats are the main pollinator of the durian fruit, considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia. And in Mexico, bats are the main pollinators of agave plants, which means we can thank bats for tequila.

Bats also provide insight into ways to improve human health. A protein in the saliva of the common vampire bat called Draculin was developed as a drug that helps prevent strokes by breaking down blood clots. Research is also studying bats’ immune systems to understand why they tolerate or are immune to certain viruses — including COVID-19 and Ebola — to help humans better deal with these diseases.

Read more: 20 things you didn’t know about … bats

Are bats endangered?

(Credit: Shutterstock/Volha Werasen)

Unfortunately, nearly half of North America’s bat species are at risk due to habitat loss, as well as severe droughts and temperature extremes caused by climate change, according to the first ever State of the Bat Report released in April 2023.

“Bat experts are really worried because over 50 percent of bats in North America could face a serious decline in the next 15 years,” says Frick. Rather than cause for despair, she sees this report as “motivation for action.”

Bat Conservation International and its partners are already using innovative approaches to help bats recover, such as building “bug buffets” to help certain species survive white-nose syndrome. This fungal disease, introduced from Europe, causes skin lesions in some bats during the winter that deplete energy reserves to the point where they can starve to death. A study published in March 2023 found that placing UV lights near cave entrances where little brown bats hibernate, lured by insects, provided infected bats with three to eight times more food in the spring and fall.

“There is not going to be a simple solution to this wildlife crisis,” Frick says. “But I’m hopeful because people are working together to protect sites and create conditions that benefit bats.”

Read more: Coolest Bat Species

What animals will become extinct?

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