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Bats have gained a pretty bad reputation with humans. It’s no compliment when someone says, “you’re blind as a bat.” These furry fliers with webbed wings have been cast as villains in countless horror movies and books. Our mothers warned us about bats getting tangled in our hair once they start flying around just after dusk. We believe every bat in the world carries and spreads rabies. Well, all of these assumptions are not true. In most cases, bats aren’t villains at all -- they have a very special place in our ecosystem.

Bats have inhabited our planet for a long time. These mammals have been in existence since the Eocene Epoch, their fossils dating back 50-60 million years. Almost 900 species of bats have been recorded. The only regions that are not common to bats are the arctic zones and some remote islands.

There are two “suborders” of bats: the megabat and the microbat. One of the largest of the megabats is the “flying fox”, found in Malaysia. Its wing span is almost 6 feet. Thailand is home of the bumble bee bat, the tiniest of the species and about the size of a small coin.

Bats are the only mammal that flies. Their wings consist of a thin membrane stretched over the elongated bones of four of five fingers. Only their is not attached to this membrane. The digit is also clawed, as are a bat’s toes. This special wing design allows them to perform remarkable aerobatic stunts.

Bats are not totally blind as many people believe. Microbat species “see” using sound. They use radar (or echolocation) to target their
prey. High frequency sounds emitted from the mouth or nostrils are reflected back at bats as echoes, enabling them to judge position,distance and sometimes the kinds of objects around them. This sophisticated radar is another reason why bats are such efficient night time hunters.

Most megabats on the other hand, do see. There is only one species of the larger bat that used echolocation, and then only when they fly at night.

During daylight hours bats roost in caves, cre-vices, underneath barn eaves, in building vents or attics, or under rocks. Megabats “hang out” in large numbers in the branches of tall trees. Other species live a more solitary life in smaller groups consisting of one male and 12 or
more females. Certain species even migrate, their range covering a 1000 miles or more.

Most bats catch insects for food. One single bat catches 600-700 mosquitoes in an hour. Many of the tropical species dine on fruit. Still others eat flowers or nectar and in some instances are vital to the cross pollination process of certain plants. There are even bats that are carni-vores. Their prey is lizards, birds and some-times other bats. And in the American Tropics the Vampire bat drinks the blood of cows, chickens, pigs and even people.

Bats rarely produce more than one baby each year and the young are slow to leave their mothers. Yet despite their low reproduction rate, their disfavor among humans, and their low tolerance for pesticides and insecticides, bats continue to thrive. This is due to their long life span, the norm being around 20 years. However, there are some bats on record that have lived almost 30 years.

Bat droppings, or “guano”, deposited in great mounds in caves, supports whole ecosystems of other organisms. There is even a strain of bacteria present in bat droppings that is used to produce gasohol and certain antibiotics. And the business about rabies -- yes, bats do carry it. But outbreaks in North America due to bat bites are rare.

So next time you see a bat, don’t add another black mark to their already unfair reputation -- remember all the good things they do for us and for the ecology.