Bats have lived on the Earth for about 50 million years, and all it took was one book written in 1897 to give them a bad rap.
In 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published, linking bats to vampires. Nearly 35 years later, the nail was set in the coffin when on the big screen, Bela Lugosi stood in front of an open balcony and flew off, having transformed into a bat. Today, bats are still thought of as spooky and evil and have become a dark symbol of Halloween. And, ironically the last week of October is Bat Week!
The fact that bats are nocturnal and live in caves underscores their mysteriousness. And scientists have not had bats high on their list of creatures to research which leaves them shrouded in their mystery. Their recent association with COVID-19 doesn’t help their reputation.
Moving From Superstition to Science
Now that scientists and environmentalists have learned about bats’ vital role in our environmental and economic health, public attention can turn from superstitious thinking like bats sucking human blood or flying rodents to one of care and concern for their well-being.
Their insect consumption, plant pollination, and seed dispersal abilities make them more of a superhero.
Threats to Bats
Bats have an uphill battle for survival to fight, given their unfair reputation. Sadly, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that more than 200 bat species in 60 countries worldwide are critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable.
The answer to an often asked question, “Why are bats endangered,” is because of several factors:
Loss & Fragmentation of Habitat
The development of open spaces for roads and buildings reduces the natural habitat for bats. In addition, when roads, farms, cities, and other human developments divide the land, it causes a loss in their food supply, eliminates appropriate shelter, and disrupts the traditional travel paths of migratory bats.
Diminished or Degraded Food Supply
Pesticide use, light pollution, contaminated water, and invasive species drastically change the natural ecosystem that bats require making areas unviable habitats for them. Agricultural monocultures also eliminate the diversity of the food they need. Degradation of their food supply causes them to increase their daily and seasonal travel, exposing them to increased predators, stress, and exhaustion.
White-nose Syndrome is a fungal disease of hibernating bats that first appeared in 2006 and has since killed an estimated six to seven million bats. A white fungus grows on their nose, ears, and wing membranes which compromises their immune system and increases their winter arousal, causing them to deplete their fat reserves. Bats affected include the Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat, tricolored bat, little brown bat, etc.
Are Bats Protected?
The Endangered Species Act is a law in the U.S. that protects important species. It is cited as the reason many species have been able to make a comeback, including the bald eagle. Many bat species are endangered and protected federally under this act. Other species are threatened, which is a lesser designation but puts them under close watch.
These protections apply regardless of whether the bats are in their natural environment or have made manufactured structures their roosting place.
As our knowledge of bats continues to grow, more and more people are backing the laws protecting bats and organizations that are studying and promoting bat welfare.