LBL Wildlife Report: Breaking Down Common Bat Myths
In the next installment of Sounds Good's Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Report, Tracy Ross speaks to Woodlands Nature Station's lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, about bats, including common misconceptions about these furry, flying mammals. Pollpeter describes how Kentucky is an ideal habitat for bats due to the limestone caves in the middle of the commonwealth and habitat areas in western Kentucky like Land Between the Lakes. He explains that contrary to misconceptions fueled by Dracula and Halloween-themed pop culture, bats are beneficial animals to have in the environment.
Pollpeter says one common myth about bats is that they all suck blood. "Out of all of the 1,400 species of bats you're going to find worldwide, there are only three species that will actually drink blood, and all of them are in Central and South America," Pollpeter says. "They do, from time to time, feed on a human, but most people do not even feel it. They mostly feed on other animals, maybe livestock. It's something almost akin to a large mosquito bite. They can carry a little disease down there to some of the animals, but other than that, they're pretty harmless and easy to avoid."
"Here in North America, especially in the eastern United States, we really don't have to worry about anything when it comes to bats drinking our blood or anything like that. All the bats that we have in the Southeast are mosquito eaters and bug eaters and eat the things that fly at night that we don't want to have around us." This leads to another misconception that bats will try to fly into humans' hair.
"Bats' radar is a little more defined than some of the radar we have in our military. So, they have a very easy way of avoiding us. They don't want to run into our hair. They're not going after anything that's in our hair. They're going to the stuff we're attracting to us — so, those mosquitos, those nighttime insects that might be drawn to us, that's what the bats are going to go for," Pollpeter says.
Pollpeter explains that bats' radar is so well-defined that they can see individual hairs on the human head. They also have decent vision, but because they are active at night, they use echolocation to find food in the dark. Echolocation, Pollpeter says, "helps them be able to catch some of their favorite foods, like moths, and some bats are said to be able to eat 1,000 mosquitos in a night. That takes quite a bit of effort to be able to grab something out of the air like a mosquito."
Tracy Ross posits that some people find bats creepy because they sleep upside down wrapped inside their wings, like a cloak, referencing large species of bats like the giant golden-crowned flying fox. "Lots of bats do sleep upside down because it makes being able to take off a lot easier into a flying motion," Pollpeter explains. "The back legs are not very strong, but they have grip-like claw feet that are able to grab onto the underside of a cave. A lot of bats do that."
"The flying foxes that you find in the old world, particularly southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, those you can understand why people might have a negative connotation because they're out at night, and they're huge. But the nice thing about the flying fox that makes them kind of a unique species is that they're all so giant. They can have a 6 to 7-foot wingspan. But they're fruit eaters. They're basically giant fruit bats. They're also not going to go out for blood, a dog, a cat, even with a 6, 7-foot wingspan. They're mainly after overripe fruit that you're going to find in the jungle environment."
Pollpeter says that throughout his 27 years of working at the Woodlands Nature Station, he's noticed a distinct shift in how people view bats. "I've found that people are very positive about bats and that they're very interested in attracting them to their backyard, whether through putting up a bat box, creating a habitat for them, or just being able to identify them. I think the word is getting out that the bats that we have in our area — 13 or 14 species that might be found in west Kentucky and west Tennessee — are very beneficial for your garden, for your health, for trying to reduce the amount of insects that you're going to have around your house. They can be a fun thing to watch in the evening."