About Bats

Bats are the world’s only flying mammal; they are more closely related to humans than mice, they may hold the key to longevity, and they live life on the edge…


Bats are the “black sheep” of the animal kingdom—they break all the rules.   Based on the fossil record, bats have existed for at least 53 million years.

They belong to the Order Chiroptera meaning “hand wing” and feature an anatomy much like the human hand with skin stretched between their elongated fingers and thumb.  They are an incredibly long-lived mammal for their size, with longevity records upwards of 30-40 years old.   

What is it like to be a bat?

Because of their small size bats lose heat and water easily. This is a problem -- as a flying mammal bats experience extreme energy demand from flight. While bats should have to eat around the clock to be able to survive, instead they have unique adaptations that allow them to survive by just eating on warm nights. And eat they do! On a warm summer’s night, a bat can consume a mass of insects equivalent to their entire body weight. This is what makes bats a critical component of a healthy balanced ecosystem.

But eating and flying is of course not enough. Female bats have the added pressure of having young. And they only get one kick at the can each year:  While not all females reproduce each year and some species can give birth to more than one pup, in general, each summer adult females give birth to a single pup. That pup must be born as early as possible so that it has time to grow, learn to fly, learn to catch insects, and fatten in time for hibernation or migration. No wonder an estimated 50% of pups don’t make it through their first winter.

 

With highly limited energy budgets, bats just barely make a living. And this especially true of adult female bats. But they do, thanks to strategic selection of day roosts and behaviours that make them unique among the animal kingdom. It takes a disproportionate amount of energy to keep their small bodies warm and so, unlike most other mammals, they don’t always defend a ‘normal body temperature’. Yes, they are somewhat like reptiles in that they can lower their body temperatures down to that of their surroundings! This mammal magic is referred to as torpor.

 

Torpor is critical for saving energy, but comes with a long list of challenges. Picture this:  if an adult female bat roosts in a cold cement crevice under a bridge, she will save a lot of energy because her cells aren’t burning through her stored fat. But her metabolism is so slow that the fetus that she is trying to develop simply doesn’t grow.  If she wants this fetus to grow, she needs to have her body stay warm. Burning her limited fat stores -- and yes they are limited because if she gets too fat, she can’t fly, and let’s face it, bugs aren’t fattening! -- to develop her fetus is really not a viable option. The solution? She moves to a hot roost; her hot surroundings keep her body warm without her having to burn her precious fat stores.  This is also very important when her body is producing milk for her fast growing pup. So during pregnancy and lactation, most female bats seek out hot roosts – like your attic or perhaps a bat box.

 

But of course, too much of a good thing can be bad and lately there are reports that at some latitudes climate change related heat waves may be turning bat boxes into death traps. Here in BC we have seen some heat stressed bats and some mortality. Thus one of our projects is looking at how we can help prevent bat boxes from becoming ecological sinks.

 

Because bats are long-lived and often return to the same place they were born, bats are particularly susceptible to threats from sudden loss of habitat. More than one landowner has reported bats desperately clinging to the outside of buildings after they were sealed out of these long-standing roosts.  Loss of natural habitats over the years as humans have encroached on the low elevation habitats where bats make a living, together with persecution, WNS disease, and a growing trend in urban areas to seal out bats or replace old buildings with new structures, is leaving our bat populations vulnerable. Anecdotally our bats have been declining for years here in western Canada, but it wasn’t until recently that we developed a protocol to use acoustic technology to try to quantify this. The North American Bat Monitoring Program was established to allow us to properly measure and understand changes in bat abundance and diversity.   

The large Order of Chiroptera consist of more than a quarter of all mammals found on earth, split between two main groups: Megachiroptera and Microchiroptera.  Megachiroptera are generally large bats with large eyes, small ears that do not echolocate, and are primarily found in “old world” countries/continents such as Africa, Asia, and Australia.  Microchiroptera are relatively small bats, with smaller eyes and larger ears, that live throughout the world and use echolocation to source their prey.

Bats helping humans in unexpected ways:

 

Of course we typically are reminded of how important bats are for their pest-control services and keeping our dependence on pesticide use low.  But there is even more!

 

In recent research, Myotis bats have been found to possess a particular genetic condition that makes them extremely long-lived in relation to their size.  Myotis bats possess seemingly “supernatural” telomeres that protect the end of the chromosome from wear and tear and from fusion with the nearby chromosomes.  In other bat families, humans, and other animals, these telomeres shorten with time, causing age-related breakdown of cells. In the longest-lived species of bats, telomeres found at the end of a chromosome don’t breakdown. The role of telomeres in relation to cancer is a newly developing area of research for human health.

And in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, bats may become of even greater interest to us as researchers study their unique ability to live with, and not become sickened by, coronoaviruses. If we can unlock the secret to their immune-response success, perhaps humans may one day figure out a way to combat new viral infections as they emerge. Check out this article on the antiviral immune response in bats. 

Economic and Ecological Roles of Bats:

Bats are very important to the natural world, and our human way of life actually relies heavily on these small, unique animals although actual research to document that relationship is sparse.  To find out more about the importance and critical role that bats play in our ecosystem, visit here or have a read through some of the resources listed below.

 

Ecological and Economic Importance of Bats (Order Chiroptera). ISRN biodiversity, 2013.  Kasso, M; Balakrishnan, M.

Economic Value of the pest control service provided by Brazilian Free-tailed bats in south-central Texas. Cleveland, C.J, et al. 2006. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture. Boyles, J. et al. 2011.  Science.

Ecosystem services provided by Bats.  Kunz, T.H. et al. 2011. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

 

Photo Credits: Header Photo- C. Engelstoft, Mosiac Photos: Species-Ian Routley; Threats-Jonathan Mays, Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; Spotted Bat- Cori Lausen.

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Contact Information
Address: Western Canada Bat Conservation Program; Kaslo, British Columbia | wcsbats@wcs.org |