Denver, CO – Bats are one of the iconic symbols of Halloween, but these often misunderstood mammals are not as frightening as their reputation.
It is hard to pinpoint why people are afraid of bats. One reason might be their appearance. Another might be because bats are nocturnal they have an automatic association with all that is dark and evil. Whatever the reason, Halloween is a good time to remember the important contributions bats make and to debunk the myths that have stalked the misunderstood night-flying creatures for hundreds of years.
“Bats have had bad PR, just like spiders and snakes,” said Tina Jackson, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife a bat specialist. “You just say the word ‘bat’ and people automatically think bad things. But bats are beneficial animals. They play key roles in the world’s ecosystems. People shouldn’t fear these animals at all.”
Despite the hysteria portrayed in old Hollywood films, bats are not airborne rodents that mysteriously morph into blood-sucking vampires. They are, however, the only mammal capable of true flight.
Bats possess extraordinary echolocation skills that allow them to perform astonishing mid-air maneuvers while relying only on sound to hunt for insects.
Their expert flying ability helps bats play an essential role in controlling pests, pollinating plants and dispersing seeds. Bats that eat nectar and pollen are said to be the only source of reproduction for many of the world’s night-blooming flowers. Bats that eat mosquitoes provide an essential service reducing mosquito populations.
“When people sit outside on warm summer evenings and they’re not bothered by mosquitoes, they should thank the local bats,” Jackson said.
One negative image attributed to bats is that they carry rabies. While that can be true, Jackson says most bats in the wild are free of rabies and other sicknesses. Only a small minority of bats carry the rabies virus.
In Colorado, incidents of people being bitten by rabid bats are very low. In most cases, someone finds a sick bat, touches it and gets bitten. As with other wildlife, “People should not handle them,” Jackson said.
There are 18 species of bats in Colorado. The little brown bat and the big brown bat are found in caves, trees, houses, abandoned mines, buildings and other habitats throughout Colorado. Townsend’s big-eared bats are primarily found in caves and inactive mines.
All the bat species in Colorado are insect eaters. Experts say a single little brown bat, one of the most common species in the state, can consume as many as 600 mosquitoes per hour.
Most Colorado bats migrate to some extent, although little is known about this behavior. The advantages of having separate summer and winter roosts must be substantial, however, to justify sometimes lengthy commutes. Brazilian free-tailed bats travel 1,000 miles or more into the interior of Mexico each fall, probably the longest migration of any bat in the world.
During the past year, Parks and Wildlife biologists have increased efforts to learn more about Colorado’s bats in light of recent declines of bat populations in the eastern United States caused by a disease called “white-nose syndrome.”
The disease is caused by a fungus known as Geomyces destructans. In the four years since it was discovered, white-nose syndrome is responsible for the death of more than one million bats. Some bat populations have experienced declines of over 90 percent after becoming infected with this disease.
White-nose syndrome is named for the white, powder-like material seen on the nose, ears and wings of infected bats. Bats in Europe are known to carry the fungus but experts are still unsure why it showed up in North America. The bat populations in Europe are not experiencing similar declines, leading some researchers to speculate that it may have been present there long enough for the bats to develop a natural resistance.
White-nose syndrome has not been found in Colorado. Since being first documented in 2007 in a cave in New York, white-nose syndrome has spread to 16 states and 4 Canadian provinces. In 2010, a cave in northwestern Oklahoma, less than 200 miles from the Colorado border, tested positive for the fungus.
Because so many natural bat habitats are in decline, wildlife biologists believe it is important to preserve some abandoned mine openings for bats. To conserve bat roosts, Colorado Parks and Wildlife sponsors the “Bats/Inactive Mines Project,” aimed at installing special “bat gates” at the openings of abandoned mines. The gates are designed to allow bats to fly in and out of the mine openings while preventing humans and other animals from getting in.
For more information about Colorado bats visit: http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/Profiles/Mammals/BatsofColorado/Pages/BatsOfColorado.aspx