August 23, 2005

Myths and facts about bats

by Paula Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- You're probably wondering: Why all the fuss about bats? Aren't they just ugly, rabid little critters that get snarled in long manes?

Nope. Just ask any 10-year-old.

They'll tell you; "Bats are really cool."

Consider these bat facts:

• Only half of 1 percent of bats — that's one bat out of 200 — is infected with rabies. And if they are, they're easy to pick out. They'll act abnormally, like resting on sidewalks in full sun. If you see such a bat, don't touch it. Call an animal control expert.

By comparison, as many as 20 to 30 percent of all skunks, raccoons and possums in some areas carry rabies.

• The only flying mammals, bats look like brown, fuzzy mice with black, leathery wings. They tip the scales at eight grams each, about as heavy as four pennies.

Unlike mice, bats aren't pumping out frequent litters of little ones. When it comes to gestation, "…we like to think of them as flying elephants," says Timothy C. "Tim" Carter, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale zoologist. "Pregnant females only have one bat pup a year."

• Bats mate just before they begin their long winter naps. But listen to this, moms: The pregnant females store the sperm in their reproductive tracts all winter. And their offspring don't begin to grow until spring, when egg and sperm join. Shortly after, the expectant moms head out to summer maternity roosts where they bear a single pup, usually six to eight weeks later. They nurse their young, which learn to fly and catch insects about three weeks later.

• Bats are better than commercial bug zappers. Bats consume innumerable insects that otherwise would decimate crops in our country, saving farmers millions and millions of dollars, says Carter. The largest bat colony in the United States gobbles 200 tons of insects per night.

• During hibernation, bats may take only one breath a minute and survive solely on body fat. A single disturbance or arousal can cause them to use up a month's worth of fat reserves.

• Bats may zip around in total darkness at speeds of up to 20 mph and never run into another bat or anything else.