There are more than 1,300 bat species globally, representing an amazing diversity of species that have evolved to survive in wildly varied habitats and food chains. Bats are known to eat insects, fruit, nectar, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals and even other bats. The American false vampire bat for example is a top carnivore and is known to catch smaller bats, frogs and small birds.
They are among the most misunderstood of animals – routinely feared and loathed as sinister denizens of the night. Except in China, where bats have long been celebrated as symbols of good luck and happiness. Their images embellished the palaces, thrones and robes of emperors.
Bats are in fact wonderfully beneficial creatures that provide invaluable services to both natural ecosystems and human economies around the world. Many of the more than 1,300 species consume vast amounts of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests. Others pollinate many valuable plants, ensuring the production of fruits that support local economies, as well as diverse animal populations. Fruit-eating bats in the tropics disperse seeds that are critical to restoring cleared or damaged rainforests. Even bat droppings are valuable as a rich natural fertilizer, and, when mined responsibly with bats in mind, it can provide significant economic benefits for landowners and local communities.
Bats are “keystone species” that are essential to some tropical and desert ecosystems. Without bats’ pollination and seed-dispersing services, local ecosystems could gradually collapse as plants fail to provide food and cover for wildlife species near the base of the food chain.
Bats are also somewhat surprisingly very much like us as they develop and maintain complex relationships that last for many years equalling the complex social networking skills previously documented in elephants, dolphins and primates.
Bats are dependent on their vocalizations for orientation and communication due to their nocturnal lifestyle, and their social nature, and they are able to differentiate the ultrasonic "echolocation" calls that other bats make and thus recognize the voices of other bats from within their social groups, helping them to keep in touch with bats that they have an individual relationship with.
Besides their social lifestyles, bats and people share a number of physical characteristics. Both produce sounds using a combination of the larynx, vocal cords, and nasal cavities. These structures work together with an animal’s physical makeup to produce an individual’s unique voice. In stressful situations, voices become higher pitched, or ‘squeaky,’ in bats as in humans. Also, each individual bat has a slightly different morphology, and thus its voice sounds different from any other individual, just as voices in humans differ individually.
The ability to recognize individuals by sound may govern the reunion of groups at night roosts. When isolated bats are observed, they emit calls which result in the bat being joined by members of its usual night roosting group, giving weight to the belief that others must recognize his call.
Bats really are amazing animals
The world is a dangerous place for bats. Although they provide vital environmental and economic services, bat populations are declining around the globe, largely because of human activity including habitat destruction and degradation, overhunting for the bushmeat trade, and irresponsible guano mining and tourism which disturbs their winter hibernation sites. The dramatic growth of wind energy throughout much of the world is also taking a huge toll on bats. Scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands of bats are killed each year in by collisions with the spinning blades of wind turbines or rapid pressure change at turbines that can rupture blood vessels.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 26 bat species as Critically Endangered, meaning they face an imminent risk of extinction. Fifty-one others are Endangered, and 954 bat species are considered Vulnerable.
Because bats reproduce slowly, with females of most species giving birth to only one pup per year, recovery from serious losses is painfully slow and tenuous at best. It is often difficult to spot significant declines in such species until their situation is dire.