Time to turn bats’ image on its head

Bats undeservedly get a bad rap as our only flying mammal is a harmless creature who doesn’t deserve its scary reputation and association with madness says Emer Sexton.
Time to turn bats’ image on its head

It is almost Halloween and suddenly things that we don’t give any thought to for the rest of the year are uppermost in our minds – pumpkins, capes, black crepe-paper, orange face-paint and, of course, bats. Bat motifs are everywhere, from hungry-looking bat decorations to strange costumes for kids that are a frankly ridiculous mix of human and bat bits. Bats emerge into the mainstream for a brief period in October, which is ironic as our native bats go into hibernation from October/November until spring. In fact, this really makes Halloween the big farewell party for bats until next year.

Bats are the only true flying mammals (not gliding fakers like those American squirrels). They may not be the cutest mammal – close-ups of bat faces really don’t do anything for them and you are not going to get Facebook suggestions for cute videos of bats doing cute things with puppies, but they are worthy of our interest as it turns out they are pretty mysterious creatures that may eventually reveal the secrets to eternal youth.

Ireland has nine species of bat, and the most common and smallest of these are the pipistrelles. These are the ones you are most likely to see, zipping around at dusk as they hunt midges, mosquitos and small moths, and who can’t appreciate that?

A lot of people, it seems, as bats are still very misunderstood. Some people suffer from chiroptophobia (fear of bats) and think that bats will get tangled in their hair, which might be far more dangerous for the bat due to the current proliferation of hair extensions.

As they are a nocturnal species, they are often identified with symbols of darkness and insanity (associated with the devil and evil, bats out of hell, batty old ladies, Ozzy Osbourne) and there is a very strong urge to avoid them and even forcibly evict them if they are found hanging around in the attic. It is again ironic that even though bats often roost in churches (bats in the belfry?) they have never been regarded as particularly blessed. During Halloween bats are linked with Dracula, who it must be said made being a bat a little more sexy and Gothic than Batman for all his Kung Fu.

I have assisted in bat surveys, tramping around fields at dusk with a bat detector to check for foraging bats, and if you ever get the chance to go on a bat walk with an experienced surveyor I would really recommend it. Using a bat detector correctly, knowing what species are likely to be detected at what frequencies and being able to accurately determine the number of bats in an area takes quite a bit of skill. We can see bats foraging, but with a detector we can hear the sounds that different species make as they search for prey which is fascinating. Bats aren’t blind they have good vision but to hunt in the dark and avoid collisions, they rely on their hearing.

They give off high pitched sounds, many of which are at frequencies we can’t hear, that bounce off nearby objects and are heard as echoes (echolocation) by the bat who uses them to work out how near to something he is and at what speed it is moving.

Ecologist, Elaine Dromey inspired her 7-year-old son to buy his own bat detector after taking him on a bat walk at the Lough Nature Reserve in Cork City. She carries out bat surveys and highlights how little is known about these mammals and why she finds them so fascinating. “Bats are one of our few native mammals that we have in common with other countries. Usually females have only one young at a time, and so populations are slow to regenerate. Also, there is growing evidence of long distance migration by bats. In mainland Europe, where there are huge populations of bats, this can be easily observed. However, in Ireland, we have smaller populations and fewer species, and much less is known about the patterns of migration”.

In the UK, bat detectors have been placed on commercial ferries’ travelling routes through the southern North Sea and some species of bat have been recorded considerable distances off-shore. Recent research indicates they may be drawn to car ferries to roost as they migrate from the UK to Continental Europe. (It is almost Halloween, and this particular fact reminds me of the story of Dracula, who transported himself from Transylvania to England on a ship, dining on the crew as he went).

One of the most interesting facts about bats is their longevity – it seems bats are exceptionally long-lived for their size. A mammal of comparative size like a mouse may only live for a year or two, while in Ireland the average lifespan of a bat is about 7-8 years. The oldest on record, a Brandt’s bat, is at least 41 years old. Imagine your pet mouse living for over 40 years? It turns out it is all in the genes, so you don’t need to start eating bats or investing in bat facials just yet. However, next time you find one in your attic, think anti-aging serums and do not disturb.

THE BAT FACTS:

  • Check out images of Honduran white bats online for that “as cute as a kitten” feeling.
  • No bats means no tequila slammers. Bats pollinate the agave plant and the fruits are used to make tequila.
  • One species of bat does feed entirely on blood — a tropical species found in Mexico, Central and South America.
  • Emer Sexton is a Cork-based planning and ecology consultant with a particular interest in incorporating ecology and natural features into urban design and planning.

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