Bats: The Basics

Thank you so much for giving me lovely feedback and sharing my first post! It is super encouraging to receive such awesome comments!

So, on with the next post! When I sat down to think about what my next post shall be about, I just wanted to write about everything. But I have to go for manageable chunks and I thought I’d start with the basic bat facts – making sure all my readers are up to speed in the otherwise slightly confusing world of Chiropterology*! This post will therefore focus on some key questions: what bats are, where bats are found, what they get up to and some batty record setters to tell people about at the pub!

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* – the study of bats

Pic 1: A very rough sketch of the structure of taxonomy (how we classify species). The examples in brackets are the different groupings for humans!

Let’s begin with what bats are. Seems like a pretty daft question but there can be confusion around this. Also, it’s cool to think about:

Bats are all mammals, and the only mammals capable of true flight. All bats are grouped in to the order* Chiroptera, which is the second largest order of mammals after Rodentia, the rodents. This brings me onto the first myth to dispel – bats, although fluffy and squeaky, are not related to mice or rats. Instead, they are their own funky branch of the mammal tree1!

Pic 2: The jazz hands of the bat – look at our finger bones compared to theirs! If you practice, you can anatomically mimic a bats hand and pretend to fly around your bedroom… which I totally did not do as a small child…

Being mammals, they give birth to live young and nurse them on milk until they are ready to go and do their thing. You can also see the same hand-structure in bats and humans (see pic 2) and from this we can scientifically state that bats do, indeed, fly with the power of jazz hands†!

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* – For those less acquainted with zoology, an order is the grouping below class. Classes include the mammals, the birds, the reptiles etc. and orders include the bats, the rodents, the carnivores etc. See pic 1

† – Jazz hands and some highly specialised wing membranes made of skin and thin, stretchy muscles – but that’s less catchy

Bats are found in every continent but a few islands and the poles2 – I guess they’re not big fans of the cold. Having said that, there are some insane bats that hibernate in snow3 so each to their own! Being so widespread means that there is an extraordinary diversity within the world of bats – the more places they cover, the more environments they specialise in, and the more species you end up with! Wherever you are, there is a bat for every occasion… unless you’re in the poles but then you either have penguins or polar bears, so no complaining there!

What do they get up to? Bats, as I’ve mentioned before, are mammals like us. That means they care for their babies until they’re capable of flight and feeding. Even then, whilst on the island of Utila, Honduras, I found two Jamaican fruit-eating bats (Artibeus jamaicensis), one of whom was smaller and was regularly cleaned by the larger one. I made the assumption that they were a mother and child, and whilst the child was quite independent and could fly, it seemed to prefer to stay close to mum… Kind of like me at university!

Pic 3: Jamaican fruit bat laundry squabbles

Some bat species co-mother their pups in huge clusters of baby bats called a nursery colony4. Male bats, however, tend to have less to do with their pups, and some species even have bat-equivalents of bachelor pads*. Some males woo the females with a charming serenade5,6, whereas others perform impressive aerial dances6!

Bats eat lots of different things, and it depends on the species for their dietary requirements. The list includes fruit, insects, nectar, frogs, mice, other bats(!), birds, spiders, centipedes, leaves, pollen and, yes, blood. Some bats do drink blood. But before you freak out, I have to tell you that only 3 of the over 1,300 species worldwide drink blood. These 3 live in Central and South America, and, according to a guide I met in Costa Rica, only one prefers the blood of mammals (the others are more fans of bird blood7). That one is Desmodus rotundus, the common vampire bat, and it is one of the few species to display altruism; if one bat in the colony has not been able to acquire a meal, another bat will regurgitate their meal and share8. So isn’t that nice? Dracula might have unsavoury eating habits, but at least he’s a decent friend!

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* – there’s a bad pun to be made there… one for another post!

I could witter on all day about what bats get up to, but I’m going to have to pause it there and leave some content for future blog posts! Whilst I’m on the subject, though, here’s some things bats don’t do/aren’t:

  • Bats do not get stuck in your hair*
  • Bats are not blind – many can see colours and into the UV spectrum9
  • Bats are not demons, and the ones that are vampires only really go for humans when there’s nothing else10 – we are the brussel sprouts of the blood world

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* – Funny story: as a child I once attended a talk by a bat carer who, as she explained that bats do not fly into your hair, the small care-bat she had clinging to her jumper decided, at that point, to climb into, and get stuck in, her hair… It is a shame that bats cannot understand irony, otherwise it would have found that quite funny!

And finally, some record setters to tell your mates about at the pub:

  • Largest bat in the world is Acerodon jubatus – the Golden-crowned Flying Fox*, it has a wingspan of 1.7m11 and is classified as endangered12
  • Smallest bat (and arguably, smallest mammal) in the world is Craseonycteris thonglongyai – Kitti’s hognose bat, which is 29-33mm in length†and is classified as vulnerable13.
  • Longest lived bat is Myotis brandtii – the Brandt’s bat, an individual caught in a cave in Siberia was ringed 41 years before14 – a crazy record for a bat weighing only 5-7g15!

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* – Classic case of one being heavier, and the other longer, but the heaviest bat is apparently the great flying fox (Pteropus neohibernicus)… This is all according to books cited by Wikipedia that I don’t have access to so make of it what you will!

† – This is from Wikipedia and it cites a webpage that cannot be found. If anyone’s in Myanmar who’d like to measure one of these bats and let me know for sure, I’d be grateful!

I hope you have enjoyed the second instalment of Adventures in Bat Science as much as I have enjoyed writing it! Stay tuned for more bat facts next week, and please leave feedback in the comments or on any of my social media platforms!

Thank you!

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  1. Tsagkogeorga et al. 2013 | DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.014
  2. http://www.bats.org.uk/about-bats/what-are-bats/bats-of-the-world
  3. Hirakawa & Nagasaka 2018 | DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-30357-1
  4. Wilkinson 1992 | DOI: 10.1007/BF00171677
  5. Behr & von Helversen | DOI: 10.1007/s00265-004-0768-7
  6. Knörnschild et al. 2014 | DOI: 10.1163/1568539X-00003171
  7. Taylor 2019 | ISBN: 978-1-78240-557-3
  8. Denault & McFarlane 1995 | DOI: 10.1016/0003-3472(95)80220-7
  9. Fujun et al. 2012 | DOI: 10.1590/S1984-46702012000200002
  10. Gonçalves et al. 2002 | DOI: 10.1590/S0037-86822002000500006
  11. Nowak 1999 | ISBN: ISBN 978-0-8018-5789-8
  12. Mildenstein & Paguntalan 2016 | DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T139A21988328.en
  13. Bates et al. 2008 | DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T5481A11205556.en
  14. Podlutsky et al. 2005 | DOI: 10.1093/gerona/60.11.1366
  15. Dietz & Kiefer 2016 | ISBN: 978-1-4729-2202-1

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