What Is a Bat?


wiseGEEK Writing Contest

A bat is a mammal with the front limbs developed as wings, which makes it the only flying mammal in the world. A bat’s scientific name Chiroptera means ‘hand wing’ in Greek. Indeed, a bat’s open wing resembles an outspread human hand, with slim, elongated fingers and elastic skin membranes stretching between the fingers and connecting the wing to the body. The bat’s wings are much lighter and thinner than the bird’s feathered wings; that makes a bat much more maneuverable than a bird.

Bats are nocturnal creatures. They are equipped with sophisticated echolocation system, based on ultrasound, so they can orient and hunt in the darkness.

An adult bat can live for 20 years, most of them reproductive. A mother bat usually has only one baby per year. A baby bat is called a pup. When not nursing, a mother leaves her pup in the roost. On occasion, she can fly with her baby, until that baby grows too heavy. When a baby bat is born, it can’t fly by itself; its wings are too small and weak to support its body. Depending on the species, it takes one to four months for a young bat to become a self-reliable flier.

Bats often form nursery roosts, raising huge colonies of pups in the same location: a cave or a tree. Sometimes, when a mother’s milk dries out, the other mothers in the nursery pitch in, feeding the starving pup.

More than one thousand species of bats exist worldwide, constituting about twenty percent of all mammal species. Bats come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors: from the bats with the six-foot wings spans to the tiny bats less than an inch in size. Most bats feed on insects and fruits. For that reason, some of the smaller bats are essential to the survival of a number of tropical plants. The bats not only serve as pollinators but also spread the seeds by eating the fruits.

Only three species of bats sustain themselves with blood, mostly blood of cattle. A few others, including the leaf-nosed bats of Central and South America and the bulldog bats, prey on small birds and fish. At least two known species feed on other bats: the American Spectral Bat and the Ghost Bat of Australia.

Bats live in all parts of the world. There are even six species of bats in Alaska, despite the cold climate. Texas has one of the densest bat populations on Earth. Some caves in Texas are occupied by several million bats. The largest urban colony of bats in North America is also located in Austin, Texas. From April to October, one and a half million bats reside under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. They fly out at dusk, devouring over ten thousand pounds of insects each night and attracting a hundred thousand of tourists each year.

Some species of bats hibernate during winter months, while others migrate like birds, moving across continents. Records show seasonal bats’ migrations from the Baltic shores to the warmer locales of Spain and Italy.

In traditional Western culture, a bat had often been portrayed as a foreboding epitome of the night, associated with darkness, vampires, and evil sorcery. Only the 20th century had produced some positive artistic interpretations of the bats. The examples include Batman, an honorable crime-fighter in a series of comic books, and heroic bats in the novels by Kenneth Oppel.

Not all cultures painted bats as villains though. In Tonga and West Africa, for instance, a bat is a sacred animal. One folk tale in Finland describes bats as people’s souls, leaving bodies during sleep. Among some Native American tribes, a bat is considered a trickster spirit. Chinese mythology claims that a bat symbolizes good fortune.

In many modern countries, the bats are recognized as endangered species and are protected by national laws and international treaties. EUROBATS -- The Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats – had even established European Bat Night, celebrated annually throughout Europe on the last weekend of August.

submitted by Olga Livshin