Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: 10 – Bats (Order Chiroptera)

The common pipistrelle, a microbat and one of the UK’s most numerous bats. Unfortunately not numerous enough that numbers declined significantly in the 20th century and they are now protected to attempt to restore their population levels. It’s quite a cute little fluffy flyer, and as someone irritated by biting things that fly (as well as, to a lesser extent, moths bumping into lamps and screens) they are my best friend. (Credit: Drahkrub CC-BY-4.0)

Here’s a weird one because for the most part they hardly interact with us. In fact, if you ever get a chance to walk through a specially darkened bat house at a zoological park somewhere I highly suggest you do it and watch quite how easily and quickly bats can dart between human heads in near pitch-black lighting conditions.

The order of Chiroptera is a large one, divided into two sub-orders, the Megachiroptera (megabats!) and the Microchiroptera (microbats). So the megabats are actually a monofamilial (only one family) order containing the Pteropodidae. These are mostly the larger fruit bats and flying foxes extant in the old world, mainly across Australia, Asia and into Africa.

Anyone who has seen the internet has seen a video of these adorable creatures chomping on banana. If you haven’t, I’ll include a gif. They’re fucking adorable.

Omnomnomnom.

Most bats (although funnily enough not fruitbats – Bad segue) use echolocation to aid them in finding prey and avoiding obstacles. Effectively they send out their own little squeaks and chirps and await the echoes, which their sensitive hearing can utilise to pinpoint the locations of said prey or obstacles, forming a sort of sound-map. It works in much the same way that sonar does. This has led to the consideration of bats as effectively sightless – “Blind as a bat” is an expression – but nothing could be further from the truth. Bats have pretty good eyesight.

Many of them are not exclusively nocturnal, being either diurnal (hunting both in the day and the night) or crepuscular (hunting when there is still twilight) so their eyesight is very good, very useful and they definitely process both visual and audio information in their generation of a sensory view of the world.

The common pipistrelle hunting at night. I used to watch these flitting about for hours. Incidentally that’s where they get their German name from, fledermaus, or flittermouse. (Credit: © Copyright Robin Clark CC-BY-SA 2.0)

They are the second largest order of mammals behind the rodents, showing their exceptional adaptability. As I mentioned, most bats are small bats that tend to feed on insect prey, mostly flying insects.

But we’re trying to talk about misunderstood animals here, so we need to highlight some of the negatives.

For one thing, while some species of bat are cute, some just have faces like sci-fi alien labias. It’s all weird lumps, bumps and flaps. I respect it. I think they’re damn cool. But if someone wore a mask of one of those faces to a Halloween party, you’d be creeped out.

See what I mean? What the fuck is this? From top to bottom, left to right; We’ve got angry big ears, angrier big ears, angrier big ears with wings outstretched, tall-nosed klingon, tall-nosed klingon in profile, dick face in profile, dick face, inbred hamster, an abominable hybrid between a flower and a mammal, an acual cyclops, derpasaurus, the flying ewok, chubby flaps, I’m fairly certain that’s a mutant Goron from Legend of Zelda and happy big ears. This is not someone’s imaginative sketchbook, these are biological sketches of real bats! (Credit: Ernst Haeckel, Public Domain)

Then we have vampire bats. Now, these make up a very small number of all bat species (3 out of an estimated 1,300 or so) and yet, thanks to a cultural mash-up of bat lore and vampire lore they are probably the most famous of all bats. One of few species in the world to be an exclusive hematophage (blood eater – I prefer the term sanguivore but hematophage is the scientific label for it). Certainly, as far as I know, they are the only mammalian species to feed almost exclusively on blood.

They are actually far from scary, too. Exceptionally well adapted, with unbelievably sharp teeth to create a small, round wound, their saliva is adapted to be full of anticoagulant compounds to keep you bleeding. They lap up the blood (they don’t bite and suck like humanoid vampires are depicted as doing) with their tongues, eating up to half their body weight in one meal which might last around 20 minutes.

The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) – Like someone stuck the cute/creepy slider bang on 50%. They have incredibly sharp front fangs, in fact they lack enamel so they can remain super-sharp and even long-dead preserved skeletons can cause a nasty nick or cut, they use these teeth to nibble a small, round wound, a dip, in their prey and then lap up the blood. Their saliva contains anti-coagulants to keep the blood flowing. It might seem horrific but it’s actually an incredibly efficient and sustainable form of parasitism. (Credit:
Uwe Schmidt CC-BY-SA 4.0)

What’s even more remarkable is they live in large colonies, forming smaller, closer social bonds. In their tighter-knit groups, sharing of blood meals, particularly to ill or nursing members of their social circle is common. This is a very rare example in nature of a mutual altruism, charity, a welfare state if you will. A member of the community who does not, for whatever reason, get out for a blood-meal can ask another to share. What is more, vampire bats have been observed sharing without first being asked and, I have introduced Hamilton’s Rule before (rB>C where r = relatedness of the recipient, B = the reproductive benefit of the altruism and C = the reproductive cost to the donor) Well vampire bat altruism has been shown to surpass that rule. Effectively it is a so-called ‘true’ altruism, not done for relatedness or kin benefit.

Now, don’t read too much into it. Observations show the colonies that tend to do this more tend to survive better, there is a survival benefit to it, hence why I described it as a ‘mutual altruism’. It’s tit-for-tat, give-and-take, and still being very much investigated but it puts paid to the notion that vampire bats are some kind of bloodsucking monsters. They’re also tiny!

The unique teeth of the vampire bat. As mentioned, in order to stay sharp these lack enamel (easily blunted) and specimens like this have been known to cause cuts. You can also see something else vampire bats are known for doing in this mounting. They utilise their front legs (their wings) for movement. Obviously most bats tend to fly, however vampire bats sometimes need to land and crawl, particularly on their hosts, in order to find a good, bloody spot. So they crawl on their front legs, which are adapted into their wings (with the struts of the wings being elongated fingers). (Credit: Mokele CC-BY-3.0)

“Eurgh, but they spread rabies…” I hear someone cry from the back.

Of studies done a projected 0.5% of the vampire bat population had rabies. Rabies is a sickness and animals don’t carry it any better than we do, flying ones probably the least. For a bat to fly successfully it needs its highly honed senses to work quickly with its brain to make momentary decisions while flying. Without that they wibble, wobble and drop to the floor! So even if there is a huge population of bats with rabies, they don’t just fly around spreading it. Whilst several cases of rabies have been linked to vampire bats it is very rare.

But it’s not just vampire bats that freak us out. I think, certainly across Europe, bats are associated with the arcane, they are of-the-night, there’s the devil in them. I highly suspect humans are just scared of the dark, and of things that go bump in the night. Whilst I look on with awe at the soft silhouettes of bats flying overhead on a balmy summer night, I can imagine a vulnerable tribe of hunter-gatherers way back when, when eagles were still bold enough to grab a human child, would see the vague, webbed shadow of a flying fox and wonder quite what fresh hell they were seeing. What ungodly dangers of the night had come to take their children.

Their thin membraned wings, supported by long, wide-spread adapted fingers look creepy as all hell. Cool, yes, but also creepy.

A bat wing from the underside. You can see elbow joint (left) leading to an extended forearm and wrist, where the finger bones then splay out into the wing’s supports, the hook, or claw, at the top is an adapted thumb. It’s an incredible adaptation, and another animal that has evolved, by convergent evolution, the power of flight. (Credit: © Salix / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

I think a combination of their appearance and the fact they mainly come out in twilight or at night has just led to us associating them with the darkness realm, the land of the dead, with evil, witchcraft and trickery.

The truth is you sort of get what you see with bats. They’re flying mammals, most of them entirely harmless to all other mammalian life. Bats in rural communities probably save us a fortune on lost crops or pesticides (what are known as ‘ecosystem services’ and one of my least favourite things in ecology because why do we have to demonstrate an animal’s monetary value to us before we give a shit?), because they are such excellent hunters and can plough through a ton of flying critters of an evening. Their dung is also a pretty good fertiliser where it is available. Besides that are you really gonna hate on the motherfucking animals that’ll eat midges and mosquitos? I can tell you those fuckers are not going to be on this list because they are rightfully despised. As someone who comes up in big hives I respect their right to exist, but I also respect my right to make them not if they want to keep having me break out in angry, itchy red bumps!

Caves and bats! Added spook factor! This is a leaf-nosed bat. (Credit: Joshua Tree National Park, Public Domain)

So bats are alright in my book and I think definitely misunderstood. I get it, if I only ever hung around, moving near-silently, flitting gently through the night sky, I think people would get creeped out by that, too. But what most of these bats are doing is eating the flying insects that bump into your telly and your lightbulbs and your computer monitors and your Kindle when you’re just trying to chill for the night. Those that don’t eat insects eat fruit, or take small meals of blood from much larger animals that can spare it (how thoughtful!) or perhaps, at most, eat small birds, lizards or frogs.

It is low-down on the list because I think recently many people have come around to that way of thinking, mainly due to communities of bats being pushed out of their natural habitats by development. Where I am we used to have a solid population mainly based out of an old church belltower and likely an old building roof nearby. Of course, once works were done on both of these buildings our bat numbers significantly declined. With nowhere to roost they just disappeared elsewhere. I could sit outside and watch their shadows overheard, flitting amidst the deep, dark blue sky for hours. Again, as a regular insect victim I respect anything that eats things that want to eat me! Hell, I don’t like spiders but damn do I respect them!

Bats, though, do not deserve the hate and associations that they have. They are wonderful.

Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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