Bats have long been associated with Halloween. Indeed, the origin of Halloween has a long history. Once celebrated during the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) in what is now Ireland, Great Britain, and France, the Celts believed that on 31 October the ghosts of the dead returned to earth the day before their new year. They built sacred bonfires, dressed in costumes, and left food on their doorsteps for the roaming ghosts. This eventually was secularized and evolved into what we know as Halloween in the present day.
So where do bats fit into Halloween? It is believed that the huge bonfires built to keep spirits away attracted insects to the fire. Those insects buzzing about in turn attracted bats, which are voracious insectivores. The festival of Samhain was a celebration of the harvest and the change of the season from fall to winter. It was all very innocent really. Bats were taking advantage of the insects around these huge fires and at that time, people had no idea they would eventually become associated with Halloween.
Folklore of vampires and blood suckers were common across Europe, so in the 17th century when Europeans learned of bats in Latin America that feed on blood they were given the common name vampire bats. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until Bram Stokers book Dracula and the vampire movies of the 1950’s that the idea of evil bloodsucking creatures took flight. Suddenly, these small, winged mammals were demonized and became the creatures some people wrongly fear today.
The unknown leads to many misconceptions and fears of a mammal that is in reality extremely beneficial. There are many bat myths circulating around.
- Myth 1: Bats are blind. FALSE. While they actually do have good eyesight, for most that is not their primary way to seek food or navigate the night sky. They use what is known as echolocation to seek out their prey and fly at night. Echolocation is a biological sonar system whereby the bat emits a high frequency sound and uses the corresponding echo from that call to determine the location and identification of objects and prey. This allows them to navigate in total darkness and see everything, sensing obstacles as fine as a human hair.
- Myth 2: Bats are flying mice. FALSE. Bats are not rodents and are more closely related to you than a mouse.
- Myth 3: Bats get tangled in your hair. FALSE. Remember that echolocation sonar system they use? It can detect an obstacle as fine as a human hair, so no worries!
- Myth 4: All bats are blood suckers. FALSE. While there are three species of vampire bats found in Latin America, only one targets mammals. However, they don’t suck blood, they lap it up like a kitten with milk. The bats produce a powerful anticoagulant in their saliva to keep the blood from clotting. This enzyme is used in medication that helps prevent strokes in humans.
- Myth 5: All bats are rabid. FALSE. Not even close! Sure bats can contract rabies like other mammals and some may. Nonetheless, the vast majority of bats are not infected. If you see a bat that you can easily approach it is likely sick and you should avoid contact. This includes your pets as well. Never handle a bat or any other wild animal – leave that to the pros!
- Myth 6: Bats don’t matter. FALSE. Bats DO matter! Why? Bats are on the first line of defense against many insects and pests. One small Mexican free-tailed bat, found here on Fort Bragg, can eat about 1,000 insects per hour! It has been estimated that pest-control services provided by bats likely saves the U.S. agriculture industry at least $3 billion a year. Without these nighttime flying mammals there would be more pests eating precious crops. As for the bats that eat nectar and fruit, without them seeds would not be dispersed and plants would not be pollinated. Items such as bananas, avocados, and tequila would vanish.
There are over 1,300 species of bats found all over the world, except in extreme Polar Regions, and they come in all shapes and sizes from the tiny bumblebee bat to the large flying foxes and everything in between. Bats are the only mammals that have developed powered flight; other flying mammals only glide. A bats wing is made from thin skin stretched between elongated fingers, allowing the bat to maneuver more accurately than a bird.
Bats eat many different things, including insects, fruit, nectar, fish, and least of all, blood. All of the bats found in North Carolina are insectivorous so you will not find any fruit, nectar, vampire, or fish-eating bats in this locale. About two-thirds of all bat species feed on insects and other small prey.
Not all bats live in caves. Bats found on the Installation do not use caves while in this area, but some species may travel to caves in the winter to hibernate. Potential roost locations include tree foliage, hollow trunks, under the loose bark of trees, tree cavities, buildings, bridges, and bat houses.
The Endangered Species Branch has documented ten of the sixteen different species of bats found in North Carolina on Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall, including two rare species: Big Brown bats, Evening bats, Hoary bats, Silver-haired bats, Eastern Red bats, Tri-colored bats, Seminole bats, Brazilian (or Mexican) Free-tailed bats, Southeastern bats and Rafinesque’s Big-eared bats. The Southeastern and Rafinesque’s Big-eared bats are both listed as Federal Species of Concern and North Carolina Special Concern species.
Biologists search for bats using special equipment to record their echolocation calls, and by searching in hollow trees, under bridges, in old buildings, and catching bats in mist nets. Mist nets look like giant hair nets that are strung up across an area where bats will come to frequently (like a water source) with hopes that a bat flies into it so it can be captured. Oftentimes, the bats avoid the mist nets due to their echolocation call, which causes the bat to “see” and hear the net so they fly around to avoid capture.
Bats are in trouble. Not only are they are continually threatened by habitat loss each year, but since 2007 they’ve been decimated by a rapidly spreading fungal infection known as White Nose Syndrome. First detected in New York, it has spread into the central United States and as far north as Quebec, killing millions. What can you do? Don’t be afraid! You can help bats by encouraging them to roost in your yard by constructing a bat house or by protecting their roost sites and habitat. Build a bat house and you may be able to save money on bug repellant!
Just in time for Halloween is Bat Week 2015 starting on 25 October 2015. For more information on bat week visit http://www.batweek.org/. For more facts about bats you can also visit Bat Conservation International for up to date information at http://www.batcon.org/