You can't think about Halloween without thinking about bats. Those creepy, blood-sucking rats with wings give us the heebie-jeebies and we don't care who knows it. Well don't let Jennifer Newmark, Wildlife Diversity Division chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) hear you say that. She has spent a large part of her professional life explaining that not only is everything you thought about bats incorrect, but they are actually extremely important to the success of Nevada's ecosystems.
"Bats get a bad reputation because they are active at night, they're hard to see, are often very quiet, and therefore really mysterious," said Jen Newmark, Wildlife Diversity Division chief for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "It's easy to come up with scary thoughts about things that go bump in the dark, and unfortunately, a lot of people think of bats as that bump in the dark."
In an effort to help bring awareness to all the good that bats do, NDOW is once again taking part in Bat Week from Oct. 25-31. Bat Week is an annual, international celebration of the role of bats in nature organized by a team of representatives including Bat Conservation International, Organization for Bat Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service. NDOW has scheduled several items for bat week including sending out a bat fact of the day, featuring bats on its weekly Nevada Wild podcast and posting a photo gallery of Nevada bats on the Nevada Wild website at www.nevadawild.org.
Newmark points to a handful of urban myths that have given bats a bad reputation.
- Bats are blind – False – Their eyesight is about as good as human eyesight.
- Bats get stuck in your hair – False - Bats have a special ability to navigate their dark surroundings using echolocation, a kind of sonar. They can navigate through dark forests where there are leaves, tree branches, and other bats to avoid. They are therefore extremely capable of avoiding a human head of hair.
- Bats are flying rats – False – Bats aren't rodents. They are in their own order of mammals, more closely related to primates than to rodents.
- All bats drink blood – False – only three species of bats drink blood and all three species are only found in Mexico and Central America.
- All bats have rabies – False - Less than 1% of all bats carry the rabies virus. Often times when bats do contract the disease, rather than becoming the foaming mouth aggressive attacker we've seen in movies and books, bats become lethargic and grounded, dying in a short amount of time.
"It's actually kind of funny when you think about all of the misconceptions people have about bats," said Newmark. "The reality is that bats play a pivotal role in almost every ecosystem. They quietly go about all night long eating insects and helping us get rid of pests. But because we don't see them, we often don't appreciate all that they really do for us."
She points to several examples of the benefit that bats play around the world. In tropical systems, they are critical pollinators and seed dispersers. If you like bananas, mangoes, and tequila then you can thank bats as they are responsible for pollinating the plants that produce these products. Closer to home, bats in Nevada and much of North America are all insectivorous, meaning their diet consists of insects like moths, mosquitoes and even scorpions. Bats are the only night-time predators of insects, and without them, insect populations would grow catastrophically. Many of the insects that bats target are severe threats to crops and farmlands.
"A colony of 150 big brown bats can protect local farmers from up to 18 million or more rootworms each summer," said Newmark. "There are 20 million free-tailed bats that live in Bracken Cave in Texas. Those bats eat 250 tons of insects each night. It is unimaginable what our world would be like if we didn't have bats consuming these insects."
Newmark has a long list of reasons why she is so fascinated with bats, from their physical diversity (the smallest bat is the size of a bumblebee while the largest has a six-foot wingspan) to the fact that they are often the only mammals living on remote islands because they are the only ones who can get there.
"I find bats to be so incredibly interesting – they never cease to amaze me. Because bats are the second largest group of mammals, and because they occur on every continent except Antarctica, they have an incredible amount of diversity in their lifestyles, their habits, and their functions in their ecosystems."
One of her favorite examples of how remarkable bats can be is the free-tailed bat. They roost in colonies of millions of individual bats and can somehow still find their own young amongst all those bats when they return to their day roosts. They can detect the unique calls of their own baby amongst thousands of calling babies, and then can detect the unique smell of their babies so that they only retrieve and nurse their own young.
Nevada is home to 23 species of bats, with some more commonly encountered than others. When it comes to managing the state's bats, Newmark points to climate change as one area that NDOW is particularly concerned about. What effects will it have on bats and will they be able to adapt? How do climate change mitigation efforts effect bats – for example, as we shift to green energy such as wind generation, we know large numbers of bats can be killed. Working with industry partners, NDOW is developing methods to decrease the impacts to migrating bats from wind farms.
Because many of our bats roost in mines, NDOW works closely with the mining industry and other land managers to protect occupied abandoned mines. "We are deploying bat detectors in all kinds of habitats to better understand the species that occur there and the times of year they are there," said Newmark. "We are also working with partners to put in place conservation measures to protect bats from human disturbance, habitat loss, and human development."
The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) protects, restores and manages fish and wildlife, and promotes fishing, hunting, and boating safety. NDOW's wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are primarily funded by sportsmen's license and conservation fees and a federal surcharge on hunting and fishing gear. Support wildlife and habitat conservation in Nevada by purchasing a hunting, fishing, or combination license. Find us on Facebook, Twitter or visit us at www.ndow.org.