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Bats: Benefits learned, myths dispelled



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Caitlin Weinfurther, an educational specialist with the Organization for Bat Conservation, addressed a crowd of 80-some people at the Oxford Public Library about the benefits and myths surrounding the only mammal that can fly. She then gave them an up-close view of a few winged critters (see below). Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
August 01, 2012 - Bats, not books, drew folks to the Oxford Public Library July 25.

It was standing-room only in the Rotary Community Room as Caitlin Weinfurther, an education specialist with the Organization for Bat Conservation, helped approximately 80 adults and kids gain a better understanding of the only mammal capable of flight.

"Bats come in all different shapes and sizes and colors," said Weinfurther, noting there's more than 1,200 different species of bats throughout the world, except for the North and South poles.

"The largest bat in the world is about, from the tip of their nose to the ends of their toes, 2˝ feet tall and their wingspan is 6 feet wide . . . The smallest bat in the world is actually about the size of your thumb and its wingspan is about 2-3 inches."

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It's interesting to note that bats and humans have something in common. "Bats have four fingers and a thumb – just like we do," Weinfurther said.

However, unlike humans, bats' hands are their wings, so "they fly with their hands."

Weinfurther explained there are two groups of bats – mega bats and micro bats.

"You know if a bat is a mega bat because it has really large eyes, kind of a long dog-like or fox-like nose – which is why they get the name flying foxes – they eat fruit and they're all found in either Asia, Africa or Australia," she said. "We don't have any fruit bats that live in the United States."

"You can tell if a bat is a micro bat because they have really small eyes," she continued. "They have kind of large, funny-looking ears. And they use what they call echolocation."

Echolocation involves bats emitting high frequency sounds, which bounce off the objects around them. Bats use the returning echoes to navigate their way through the dark and hunt prey to eat.

Bats are useful to both humans and the environment because they eat insects such as mosquitoes, pollinate flowers and disperse seeds to aid the growth of fruit plants and trees.

"They eat things like moths and beetles, so they help us with pest control," Weinfurther explained. "They actually eat the bugs that would end up eating our crops."

The Big Brown Bat, which lives in Michigan, "can eat about 1,000 mosquito-sized insects every single hour that they're feeding."

"They usually feed about three to six hours every single night," she said. "That's a lot of bugs. That's like us trying to eat our entire body weight in food every single day."

Weinfurther dispelled many myths about bats.

For example, not all bats have rabies. "Only one-half of 1 percent of all of our bats have rabies," she said.

Not all bats drink blood. Vampire bats, which are only about 3 inches tall, do drink blood, but it's only the blood of animals, not humans.

"There's something in our blood that actually tastes really bad to them," Weinfurther explained. "They get really, really sick, so they don't like our blood; they don't feed on us."

When they do feed, it's usually on farm animals like cows, pigs, horses, donkeys and goats. Vampire bats eat about one to two tablespoons of blood, then they fly away.

"Basically, vampire bats are like big, annoying mosquitoes," Weinfurther said. "Half the time the animals don't even know that they're there."

Weinfurther noted that all bats are "actually more afraid of us than we are of them."

"We're the big scary monsters," she said. "They see us as predators . . . They stay as far away from us as possible."

"The reason why sometimes they fly a little bit close to us (at night) – and people think that they're attacking us – is because we're actually walking bat feeders," Weinfurther explained.

"We've got little bugs that hang out above our heads that are called gnats . . . Sometimes (bats) swoop a little bit close to us (to feed on these gnats)."

Unfortunately, bat populations are decreasing for a number of reasons.

"They're losing their homes, the habitat they live in," Weinfurther said. "All the bats that live around here actually live underneath the peeling bark of a dead or dying tree. We don't like to have dead or dying trees around our houses . . . so we cut down the dead trees for safety (reasons)."

Pesticides sprayed on farm crops destroy the bugs that feed bats and sometimes poison bats.

Bats are also dying off thanks to White-nose Syndrome, a fungus that grows around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats.

"We've actually lost about 8 million of our bats to White-nose Syndrome so far," Weinfurther said. "Knock on wood, it's not in Michigan yet."

Humans can help promote the bat population by building bat houses for them to live in and planting gardens/flowers to attract insects for them to eat.

For more information about the Organization for Bat Conservation, please visit www.batconservation.org or tour the group's Bat Zone at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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