Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

A large brown bat clutching the trunk of a tree, with its head pointed toward the ground.
Big Brown Bats are among the most common bats in Forsyth County. They can use the thumb-like appendage on their wings to climb trees. Photo by Leah Riley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the end of October, bats get a week of recognition. The timing coincides with Halloween, but we should really celebrate bats all year long. Why? Because bats are very cool, very unique, and very important to ecosystems around the world.

With more than 1,300 species of bats, there’s a lot of diversity, but the one thing that makes bats unique is that they are the only mammal that can actually fly. Their wings are structured like a human hand – with very long fingers – and a thumb that can be used for climbing. A thin, flexible membrane covers the bones and connects to the bat’s body to form wings. The order name for bats, Chiroptera, means hand-wing. Researchers have developed flapping-wing drones based on the structure and movement of bats’ wings.

Bats come in a range of sizes. The Golden-crowned Flying Fox is considered the largest bat species. These fruit-eating bats of the Philippines weigh up to 3 pounds and have a wingspan of over 5 feet.

By contrast, the smallest known bat is the Bumblebee bat, with a wingspan of around 6-inches and weighing about 2 grams – less than a penny. Bumblebee bats eat insects, including flies, beetles, and spiders, within their very limited range along the Thailand-Myanmar border of Southeast Asia.

Bats that feed on fruit and flowers play a vital role in spreading seeds to grow new trees and plants that produce foods, such as figs, cashews, and mangoes. These seed dispersals are also critical in reestablishing cleared rain-forests. Bats that visit flowers provide pollination services for favorite foods such as coconuts, dates, bananas, and avocados.

Brazilian Free-tailed bats are among the 16 species of bats that live in Georgia. All Georgia bats feed on flying insects. Photo by Ann Froschauer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By eating mosquitoes, moths, and beetles, insectivorous bats remove thousands of insects that are pests of humans and agriculture. Collectively, insect-eating bats provide over $53 billion of organic, non-toxic pest control to farmers around the world, protecting crops such as corn, chocolate, pecans, strawberries, coffee, and cotton from damage caused by plant-eating insects.

All 16 species of bats that live in Georgia are insectivores, feeding largely on insects that fly at night. Bats use echolocation to find flying insects in the dark. While hunting, bats emit chirps that are pitched too high for human hearing to detect. The sound waves from these chirps bounce off near-by objects. The returning sound helps bats avoid flying into walls and trees, and it also helps them locate their flying food.

Catching and eating an insect in the air usually isn’t as simple as flying up to it with an open mouth. Instead, the capture requires quick and acrobatic flying skills. After locating a moth or beetle, the bat flies toward it. When she comes into range of the insect, the bat curls her tail forward under her body, scooping up the bug and spooning it into her mouth. Sometimes the maneuver causes bats to somersault through the air. Bats can also use their wings to direct a bug into their tail membrane. Considering that a single bat can eat hundreds to thousands of insects each night, catching the evening meal requires a lot of stamina, too. Watch this video from the National Park Service, a red bat catching a moth: https://www.nps.gov/media/video/view.htm%3Fid%3DD94DF11C-1DD8-B71B-0B6D7DA329EB250D.

Some bats hunt rodents and birds. There’s even a species of bat that goes fishing. The Greater Bulldog Bat uses its long toes and claws to snatch fish from lakes in the tropics of South America.

Unfortunately, bat populations are declining worldwide. A disease called White Nose Syndrome is a major cause of decline for bat species that live in caves. Habitat loss has impacted bats that roost in trees. Wind power turbines also kill bats and birds.

We can do some things to protect bats, starting with learning how important bats are to local ecosystems and sharing that information with others. We can make some changes in landscaping to provide habitat for bats. We can plant bat-friendly gardens that include native flowering plants, shrubs, trees, and grasses that attract night-feeding moths and beetles. Visit the Georgia Department of Natural Resources “Bats of Georgia” website (https://georgiawildlife.com/GeorgiaBats) for more information on bat conservation.

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