It’s officially spooky season — a time of costumes, candy, and pumpkin spice everything (the spookiest of them all!).
That means it’s also a great time to learn about some of our “scariest” creatures, many of which are used as inspiration for Halloween decorations throughout our homes and neighborhoods. You and your family may be noticing more spiders and webs, ravens and owls, or mythical vampires in their animal form — bats.
While bats — and many other nocturnal animals (those who come out at night) — may seem creepy, they are actually quite vital to our planet.
What Are Bats?
Bats are mammals like us humans— warm-blooded animals with backbones and hair. But instead of hands and arms, as we have, they have long spread-out wings, making them excellent fliers.
Like vampires, they only come out at night. But unlike vampires, they use echolocation to navigate and hunt their prey. Echolocation isn’t quite the same as seeing; these tiny creatures actually make a very high-pitched sound (which humans can’t hear) that bounces off objects around them. Their ears then “catch” the sounds that bounce back to find the exact location of its prey (what it wants to eat).
Speaking of eating, it should be noted that the only things that need to fear bats are insects! While Halloween teaches us to associate them with shape-shifting vampires that “want to suck your blood,” in reality, most bats (around 70%) feast on bugs. Larger bats may eat rodents, frogs, or fish. Several are also considered pollinators (like the honey bee!) and consume nectar or fruit while helping our flowers and produce grow.
The Vampire Bat
So where did the vampire association come from?! Well, as it turns out, three species (out of nearly 1,400) do feed on animal blood! These are called Vampire Bats, and two of those three species primarily feed on birds. The other drinks blood from animals such as cows and horses.
While they aren’t the only animal that drinks blood (don’t forget mosquitoes!), they may have gained their creepy reputation because of their interesting hunting abilities, such as running, jumping, flying, and sensing body heat.
Where Do Bats Live?
These flying mammals can be found all over the world except for very cold places like Antarctica. During the daytime (when they sleep), they use dark, hidden spots as their homes. This means they tend to be found in caves, old buildings, or hollow spaces in trees. While sleeping, they will hang upside down from their feet with their wings folded around them just like a vampire with its cloak. During the winter months, many bats will hibernate (which is kind of like a very deep sleep) or migrate (fly) to warmer areas.
Nearly 45 species of bats can be found in the United States throughout the year. The largest one found here is the Western Mastiff Bat, named as such because of its adorable dog-like face. The Western Mastiff Bat can be nearly 7 inches long with a wingspan of up to 22 inches — that’s almost the size of 2 rulers! Meanwhile, the Big Brown Bat — with a wingspan around one ruler long (12 inches) — can be found all over the United States and in parts of Canada and Mexico.
The Coolest Facts About Bats
- They are the ONLY flying mammals, and some species of bat are the smallest mammals in the world (one known as the bumblebee bat weighs less than a penny!).
- Like most mammals, bats have belly buttons like we do!
- They CAN see. While they don’t have the best vision (similar to a human’s eyesight), they definitely aren’t blind.
- Bats can eat their body weight in insects during the night.
- Bat babies are called “pups,” just like dogs!
- The first time bats became associated with Halloween was in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1897.
Why Bats are Important
Bats might not cross our minds most of the year (with the exception of Halloween, of course) because they are nocturnal, which means we very rarely get to see them. But they have a large impact on how we live.
More than 300 types of fruit and plants depend on bats for pollination. Those include bananas, mangoes, and avocadoes.
On top of that, they eat A LOT of insects that damage crops or plants we grow as food. Without bats to keep these insect populations under control, farmers and gardeners would have a tough time growing food for us.
And even more impressive, the fruit-eating bats are great at seed dispersal. When they eat a fruit, they will either spit or poop out the seeds to grow somewhere else. They do this to spread the seeds for cacao, which is used to make our favorite chocolate Halloween candy!
How to Celebrate Bats
Bat Week is held from October 24th – October 31st. Many local forest preserves or park districts host events; be sure to check them out. And of course, don’t forget to take the Safety Pledge for the Environment!