North America's only true flying mammals are diminutive creatures: the largest weighs just 2½ ounces. Many bats hunt and navigate with a sophisticated sensory system called echolocation, which allows them to find food and pathways by listening to the echoes of their high-pitched calls. In addition, a bat's ability to hang upside down sets it apart from most other animals. Worldwide, there are nearly 1,000 species of bats, which, contrary to popular belief, are not flying rodents. Bats occupy their own group, Chiroptera, which means "hand wing," aptly named because the wings of a bat are really extended, webbed "fingers." Most bat species are insectivores, catching insects while in flight; others eat fruit, feed on nectar, or prey on other vertebrates such as fish.
Why are bats important to the environment?
Most of the 47 bats species found in the United States are insectivores, consuming such huge quantities of insects that they serve as a natural pest control. An individual bat can eat up to 2,000 mosquito-size insects nightly. Multiply that number by the millions of bats roaming the sky, and it's easy to recognize bats' significant role in maintaining an ecological balance. Bats that feed on nectar serve as important pollinators, and bats that eat fruit are key agents of seed dispersal, both critical means of plant reproduction.
Because bats are communal, even small disturbances can greatly impact their population. The development or mismanagement of their natural habitat is the most significant threat to bat populations. Human disturbance, such as cave exploration during winter hibernation, also endangers bats. When they are aroused unnecessarily from a torpid state, they use up precious energy needed to survive the winter. Another threat is pesticide use, as bats eat insects, targets of such toxins.
Getting Started: What You Can Do
- Put up bat houses on homes or other structures to accommodate native crevice-dwelling bats. (See plans for bat houses at the websites noted below)
- Help preserve open land, including forests, fields, and waterways. Preservation of old buildings used by bats is also helpful.
- Use alternatives to chemical pesticides that may be harmful to bats.
- Maintain a birdbath or pond, as bats need water to drink.
- Tell your friends and neighbors about the benefits of bats.