An Asheville audience went “batty” over a Defenders of Wildlife presentation sponsored by the Asheville Museum of Science. Just in time for Halloween, Bat Week is officially observed from Oct. 24–31.

Ben Prater, southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said ecologically speaking, Buncombe County is very special. 

“One of those unique places we have is the Sandy Bottoms Preserve, an exceptionally unique wetland ecosystem. It has the highest number of species of amphibians anywhere in the state, including the four-toed salamander, one of the most genetically unique populations in the world.” Sandy Bottoms is also home to bats, having identified eight species there in just one recent visit. 

Prater welcomed to the lectern Nina Fascione, Defenders of Wildlife vice president of philanthropy and former director of Bat Conservation International. She said there over 1,200 species of bats that comprise over 20 percent of all mammals in the world. Some varieties of bats have physical features that make them more attractive to potential mates, such as “punk rock hairdos,” fancy nose ridges, and disproportionately large ears. 

“The spotted bat can be found along the western mainland from Mexico through California. It lives very high in cliff dwellings and feeds principally on moths. Its gigantic ears proportionately to its body size are larger than any other species. It hears with echolocation, which enables it to use high frequency sonar to identify other objects, detect their location, their texture, and how fast they’re moving, all in a split second.”

Fascione said we don’t have any vampire bats in the United States, and of the 1,200 species she mentioned, only three eat blood to survive. They live in the warmer climates of Central and South America. Of those three, two mostly consume blood from birds, and the third drinks blood from mammals. “They are one of my favorite species because they are one of the few mammal species that practice reciprocal altruism. If a vampire bat is starving, one of its roost mates will regurgitate, and feed blood to the starving bat.” They will also adopt another vampire bat’s young if the mother bat is injured or killed. 

“The most important thing about vampire bats has to do with the way they take blood from another animal,” Fascione said. “They’re three and a half inches long with a wingspan of only seven inches, but they have very sharp incisors. Their saliva contains an anticoagulant. When they draw blood their saliva mixes with the blood so the blood flows and doesn’t coagulate. They can then sit on the cow or sheep and lap up the blood as it pools on their host’s skin. The properties in their saliva have been studied by the medical community and are being used in treating stroke patients.”

The smallest mammal in the world is said to be western Thailand’s endangered bumblebee bat, also known as Kitti’s hog-nosed bat. It weighs about as much as a dime. The biggest bat is the flying fox bat, with a six-foot wingspan. Bats usually produce one offspring per year, but red bats are known to commonly give birth to twins. To get through cold winter months most bat species will hibernate in caves, but some such as the red bat will go into semi-hibernation on the forest floor under leaf litter.  

“Bats are really important to our environment because of what they eat. Most of the world’s bats eat insects to survive, and benefit us with pest reduction. They save farmers in the U.S. billions of dollars per year in reduced pesticide use, and reduced crop loss by consuming bugs. Bats that feed on nectar are also pollinators,” Fascione said. 

“Being nocturnal they pollinate plants that bloom at night, and they are better seed dispersers than birds because they spread the seeds further. In degraded rainforests, bats can regenerate up to 90 percent of certain rainforests because of their seed dispersal abilities.” She said bats are responsible for pollinating bananas, plantains, cashews, avocados, peaches, and durian which has a strong odor and thorn-covered rind, but as an edible fruit is very important economically.

There are a number of issues endangering bats. Defenders of Wildlife supports sustainable energy, but what effect is the wind industry having on bat populations? “There are some species of bats that have just been hammered by the wind industry, hoary bats in particular. They get hit by the wind turbine blades, or succumb to barotrauma from the increased air pressure they produce. The hoary bat could become extinct within a couple of generations is this issue is not resolved.”      

Disturbing hibernating bats in caves has been an ongoing issue. “If they awaken it burns up their body fat reserves, and they will starve or die of thirst. Education from conservation groups has resulted in great progress in this regard. The greatest threat to bats is ‘white nose syndrome,’ the fungal disease that first showed up in New York in 2006 and has since spread to 33 states and seven Canadian provinces. It wakes the bats from hibernation because it itches, and that’s how it kills them.” 

Bats were a favored theme in Victorian ornamentation until due to folklore and fiction such as “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, they fell into disfavor as something to be feared. As we learn more about their vulnerabilities, and the vital role bats play in the world’s economic and environmental wellbeing, we become less afraid and more interested. “I’m fascinated by this taxonomic group, and they’re so important ecologically,” Fascione said.

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