Bats much more than a Halloween theme |

Bats much more than a Halloween theme

by Aaron Meier
Nevada Department of Wildlife
“Rats with wings." Did you know that bats are not rodents at all?

As we head towards Halloween on Monday we think about all the scary creatures often associated with the celebration. 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. You might be surprised, however, to learn that nearly everything you thought about bats is incorrect and they are actually extremely important to the success of Nevada’s ecosystems.

Nevada is home to 23 species of bats, with some more commonly encountered than others.

“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.

Let’s start by debunking many of the urban myths held about bats. Many people believe bats are blind. When someone’s eyesight is in question we often say he is “as blind as a bat,” but a bat’s eyesight is actually as good as human eyesight. When people see bats and they cover their heads to make sure the bats don’t get stuck in their hair it actually makes Newmark laugh out loud.

“Bats have a special ability to navigate their dark surroundings using echolocation, a kind of sonar,” she said. “They can navigate through dark forests where there are leaves, tree branches, and other bats to avoid. They are extremely capable of avoiding a human head of hair.”

What about referring to bats as “rats with wings”? Did you know that bats are not rodents at all? They are in their own order of mammals, more closely related to primates than to rodents. People who think all bats have rabies are also misinformed. 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.

“There are so many 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.”

Newmark 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 more than 18 million 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.”