Bad blood

Biting through bats' bum rap

| Story by Meghan McMahon |


Bats are one of the most feared and despised animals on Earth, right up there with snakes and spiders. Most people have never come in contact with one, and they’d do just about anything to keep it that way.

Despite the trepidation many people feel toward bats, they play a crucial role in the world, one that is critical to our own survival.

“Globally, bats play a very significant role in our environment,” said Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg, natural resource land manager for the Forest Preserve District. “Over 500 tree and plant species rely on bats for pollination, including mangos, bananas, figs, agave and cocoa.”

In total, eight bat species can be found in northern Illinois: big brown bats, little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, evening bats, eastern red bats, hoary bats, silver-haired bats and tricolored bats, which were previously known as pipistrelle bats. And while our local bats are not pollinators — insects and small birds primarily perform this duty here — they are still a useful part of our ecosystem.



Both here and around the world, many bat species eat insects, which helps limit crop pests and also mosquito populations, Armstrong-Ullberg explained.

“Bats’ diets vary by species, but we know that most species in our area feed on mosquitoes,” she said. “The little brown bat is the mosquito specialist and can eat up to 3,000 mosquitoes a night.”

Other bat species in our area have different dietary preferences, with eastern red bats eating moths and big brown bats eating hard-bodied insects such as beetles and corn earworms, she said.

Despite this usefulness both locally and globally, bats remain misunderstood, subject to many myths and much misinformation. Let’s set the record straight by taking a look at some of the more well-known bat myths.

Myth No. 1: Bats are blind

Close-up of an eastern red bat.

The origins of the saying “blind as a bat” are not fully known, but it is not rooted in truth. Most bats see as well as or even better than humans, according to the National Park Service, and some bats, such as fruit bats, see in color.

In addition to good eyesight, bats also use echolocation, or sonar vision, to locate objects with reflected sound.

“They sometimes will fly in a pattern that seems erratic, but that is just the bat following a bug,” Armstrong-Ullberg said. “The bat is using its echolocation to zero in on the bug.”

She said their erratic flying patterns may be part of the reason behind the myth that bats are blind. “They can stop on a dime and turn and fly in the other direction quickly. They will fly to feed on bugs and then turn direction to avoid a collision once they have the bug.”

Myth No. 2: Bats suck blood

A group of big brown bats roosting in a wooden structure.

Truth be told, some bat species do suck blood, but those bats don’t live anywhere in North America, let alone in northern Illinois. National Geographic reports that these blood-sucking bats, cleverly called vampire bats, live in Central and South America, and they most commonly feed on cattle.

Of the more than 1,100 bat species in the world, only three are vampire bats, according to Bat World Sanctuary. Vampire bats are tiny and, when they do suck blood, it’s only about a teaspoon worth at a time.

Myth No. 3: Bats get stuck in people’s hair

A woman holding on to her head.

Many people seem to know a person who knows a person who knows a person who once had a bat fly into their hair and get tangled. This is a common tale, but unlikely to occur in reality. That’s because of the bats’ echolocation, which allows them to navigate in the darkness with amazing precision.

Instead, Bat World Sanctuary states, these rumored stories probably stem from the fact that bats tend to swoop down – often close to people’s heads – when their echolocation is directing them to nearby insects.

Myth No. 4: Bats carry diseases

A group of big brown bats roosting in a wooden structure.

Like other animals, bats do carry diseases, so this myth is based in truth. However, the risk of getting a disease from a bat is small because bats rarely make contact with humans.

The disease most often associated with bats is rabies. Although the risk of contracting rabies or any disease from a bat is minimal, people should never handle bats — or any mammals for that matter, Armstrong-Ullberg urged.

“If you come across a bat that is active during the day, it’s best to leave it alone,” she said.

If you or a pet come in contact with a bat, contact your local health department and animal control office and take the necessary safety precautions. If you are bitten by a bat, the state health department advises seeking immediate medical attention.

If a bat becomes trapped in your home, keep your distance, close off that portion of the house and leave the window open with the screen removed so it can fly out. “They usually will,” Armstrong-Ullberg said. “They are hungry and thirsty.”

And while bats can carry rabies, it’s helpful to keep things in perspective. Rabies infections typically only affect one or two humans in the United States each year, and bats are less likely to carry rabies than raccoons, coyotes, foxes, skunks and unvaccinated domesticated animals, according to the Ohio History Center.

Myth No. 5: Bats are mice with wings

A bat hanging upside down on a picnic bench.

Many people have heard it said that bats are just mice with wings. This myth — not at all based in fact — may stem from bats’ small size and sometimes rodent-like appearance. Actually, bats are not rodents at all, and are instead classified in a group all their own, called Chiroptera, which means “hand wing,” according to Bat World Sanctuary.

Both mice and bats are mammals, but that’s where the similarities end. In fact, the latest research shows bats are more closely related to whales, horses and other ungulates, or hoofed mammals, than they are to mice and other rodents, Armstrong-Ullberg explained.

More than 5,000 mammal species exist and, of these, more than 20 percent are bats, the Ohio History Center reports. With so many bats in the world, myths and misinformation are bound to occur. But it’s important to remember these mammals aren’t just good for ghost stories and Halloween decorations. Their role in our world is significant and worthy of respect instead of fear.


Lead Image via Shutterstock

Photos by Glen Buckner, Matt Grotto, Glenn P. Knoblock

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