When I got an email from the ICNF (Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas) inviting me to a ‘Webinar’ they were hosting on bats, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to learn some more about these mysterious nighttime prowlers, so that I could then report back and tell you all about them.
Bats get a bad rap, which is hardly surprising seeing as we associate them with things like black magic, vampires and witches. No Halloween night is complete without them. In fact, one of the names for a group of bats (along with ‘colony’, or when they are flying, a ‘cloud’) I was amused to discover is ‘cauldron’. Even Batman himself is, rather ironically, afraid of them. Bruce Wayne fell into an abandoned well when he was younger, spooking the bats living there, who swarmed around him and haunted his nightmares ever since. That is until he eventually decided to do the psychologically sound and smart thing of facing his fear voluntarily. A technique that doesn’t exactly make you less afraid, but it does make you braver (not the same thing). And so he walked back into the cave and realised he could stand amongst the bats and become ‘one with the darkness’ (and maybe even realised that they aren’t so bad after all?). He then used this scary reputation that bats have to strike fear into the hearts of bad guys.
So, let’s take a leaf out of Batman’s book (probably called the ‘Batbook’) and walk fearlessly into the ‘Batcave’ (or at least attend a Webinar) and see what we can find out about these shadowy, misunderstood and mysterious creatures.
Their reputation is most likely tainted by the black sheep of the family, namely, the blood sucking vampire bats. However, it should be noted that of the 1,400 types of bats in the world, there are only three species that drink blood, and they only live in South and Central America. And so, even though Count Dracula, who lived in Transylvania (in Romania) didn’t help matters with his reputation for transforming into a bat, fictional or not - he would have been the only vampire bat in Europe.
Most bats are actually really helpful. Some are ‘fruitarians’ and so eat fruits and then go on to ‘plant the seeds’ mid flight. Other species are partial to a bit of nectar and so, in a sense, ‘take over the night shift’ and start pollinating the flowers after the bees have gone to bed. Some are carnivorous, but only pick on things their own size (or smaller), like frogs and birds. But the vast majority are insectivores, and since flying is a very energy intensive activity they work up an appetite and can eat up to half their weight in bugs per night. This makes them a great friend of farmers, as they are a brilliant natural pest control. Their ‘guarno’ is also a fantastic fertilizer (even sold in jars in Lidl a few years ago, apparently).
They are also the only mammal that can fly (well, without mechanical assistance anyway) and their wings look remarkably like a human hand. Bats are divided into two major groups: Megachiroptera or megabats (sometimes called flying foxes) and Microchiroptera or microbats. The smallest known microbat weighs just 2 grams (that’s half the weight of the pack of sugar you get with your coffee), and the most massive megabat weighs in at more than 1 kilogramme.
But megabats only live in tropical regions, and so all the bats in Europe are microbats. There’s 29 known species in Portugal (27 on the continent), and they are all indeed quite small. In fact, when people come across them they normally think they are babies, but actually most bats’ offspring are born in the beginning of June and by mid July they are already the size of adults and can venture out by themselves (with no late night curfew). Bats only have one baby per year, and even though some species live in caves with up to 2,000 bats per square metre, their mothers can leave their babies hanging (literally) while they go out to find food, and then when she gets back she can use her amazing hearing to pick out her kids particular cry and easily track them down again.
That brings me on to another thing. I don’t know why, but I always kind of assumed they were blind. Maybe it’s the expression ‘blind as a bat’, or even, it just occurred to me, because in Portuguese they are called ‘morcegos’, and ‘cego’ means blind. But it turns out that they can see perfectly well. The only trouble is that, well... they spend most of their life in the dark, and no matter how good your vision is, it’s not going to cut it when you are constantly swooping in and out of pitch black caves. This is why they also developed this amazing ability called ‘echolocation’, where they let out these noises that we can’t hear, which bounce off everything around them and the returning echo allows them to create a clear 3D picture of what’s going on. This ability combined with their eyesight means they don’t miss a trick, especially at dawn or dusk, when there’s no escape for unsuspecting insects that they catch mid air in truly amazing feats of aerial acrobatics.
They live an average of eight years in the wild, but some are known to get up to 18, and the oldest recorded bat was 42. In recent decades bat populations have been declining, particularly in Europe. In Portugal, a total of nine species are now considered under threat. The decline of these species is due to several factors. The main one being they don’t have anywhere to live. Bats like to make their homes in caves, old buildings, mines and some species even get themselves a tree house. But of course, you guessed it, humans disturb them while exploring caves, old buildings get renovated, mines get either reopened or sealed off and, of course, trees get cut down. To add to their problems they also get poisoned down the food chain by eating bugs that have eaten pesticides. They also get killed by wind turbines (something to do with the dislocation of air), and a surprisingly high number of low flyers get hit by cars.
But things are getting better. All the species in Portugal are protected and people call the ICNF if they encounter them and they often manage to find a way for us to live in harmony with them. Another reason they get a bad rap is that people think they carry diseases like rabies, but actually less than 1 percent of bats contract rabies. Obviously, like all wild creatures you shouldn’t touch them or get too close, and if you come into contact with them (or their guano) just have a little common sense and wash your hands. They live on a different timetable to us which can lead to this fear of the unknown, but bats are extremely important and marvelous creatures, and there’s no reason we can’t all live happily together. Just ask Batman. It’s the secret he doesn’t want getting out.