Bat Basics

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Bats are pretty special among mammals. They are the only group of mammals to have true flight (flying squirrels are gliders, for example). Bats belong to their own “order” or group of mammals called chiropterans. Chiropteran means “hand wing” — bat wings include the same types of muscles and bones as our hands.

Bats are most definitely not flying mice or rats or any other rodent. They aren’t even closely related except for size.

Bats are nocturnal animals, meaning they are creatures of the night. They are small, gentle animals that got a bad reputation largely because they live in the night. We are daytime animals, so in past centuries when we had no artificial light, the night was pretty scary.

Bats have a remarkable forms of finding food and “seeing” in the dark, called echolocation. Bats make a very loud sound (though at a high frequency we cannot hear) that goes out into the night, then reflects back to their ears. They hear that echo to create a “vision” of the nearby world in front of them, from trees to insect prey, at a level of detail as small as a human hair.

Almost all bats in the United States feed on insects and similar small critters. A few bats in the southwest feed on plant pollen, nectar and fruit.

Bats in the US are small with wingspans mostly less than a foot wide and weighing less than an ounce. Most are much smaller than that. To give you an idea of how small they are, here is a myotis bat being released by a scientist (bats, like all wild animals, should not be handled by anyone not trained and authorized to do that).

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One of the smallest US bats is the canyon bat which has a wingspan of 7–9 inches and weighs 0.1–0.2 ounces — about the weight of a nickel! The big bats that you may see in books and on television are usually flying foxes and other old-world fruit bats. Those bats are totally different than US bats and live from Africa to Australia and the South Pacific islands. They do not eat bugs, eat mainly fruit, and mostly do not have echolocation capabilities like our cool U.S. bats.

Most bats sleep or roost in caves or cave-like places such as bridges, mines and attics. Other bats sleep in trees. Bats often live near water. They feed wherever insects are flying, and different bats specialize in different insects. Some bats fly slowly through the forest, others sweep along the edges of water, while others fly fast high above the ground.

Bats live on all continents except for Antarctica. Forty-seven different kinds or species of bats live in the United States, while approximately 1300 bats live in the world (most live in the tropics).

Flying uses a lot of energy compared to walking or running, so bats use up a lot of energy – their metabolism has to be high. So they eat a lot. Insect-eating bats can eat 1/3–1/2 their body weight in insects every night.

Bats typically live very long lives for such a small animal, often 14–20 years, with records of some species living over 30 years.

Most bat species have 1–2 babies a year, with just a few species having 3–4, but no more