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Going Batty About Bats In 2011-2012, The Year Of The Bat

By Marianne de Nazareth

19 October, 2012

At the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity COP11 being held in Hyderabad India, during a side event- “Flagship species and the conservation of the entire ecosystem: Why do individual species matter?” I stumbled on a little known fact that 2011 to 2012 is the year of the Bat. Stories on disappearing bees have been doing the rounds, and every publication worth its salt, has carried doomsday stories on it. So it might surprise you that another, equally useful though ugly animal, the bat, has been battling to keep alive as well. But as mentioned earlier, we humans find them ugly and believe all sorts of urban legends about them, so nothing much has been written about this winsome mammal.

The Time magazine says, Bats comprise of more than 1,200 distinct species, ranging in size from a mini hog-nosed sprite weighing about an ounce to a fruit-gorging, 3-lb. giant with a 4-ft. wingspan and the movements of a fox, bats are found all over the globe. They are found everywhere from Patagonia to Alaska, Scandinavia to Madagascar, Montreal to Mongolia and of course in India. They live in a mind boggling range of habitat and boast of an amazingly precise power of echolocation to guide their precise flying movements. So all that bunkum, about them getting into your hair and clinging to your scalp is best forgotten! They will never bump into you, period, but their flying close maybe the cause for your fear.

Almost unique in the nonhuman mammalian world, even though to us they look very ugly, the centrality of the bat’s place in both nature’s great tapestry and in human affairs warrants notice and gratitude. For one thing, most bats eat insects, and unbelievably, tons and tons of insects. According to Austin-based Bat Conservation International, a single colony the size of the one found each summer beneath Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge, roughly a million members, devours about 10 tons of insects (mosquitoes, moths, beetles, etc.) during its evening rounds. That’s 20,000 lb. of flying, biting, potentially disease-carrying, crop-destroying bugs for dinner. And we are talking, every, single, night.

Bats are the only flying mammals, and they suckle their young until they are capable of foraging for themselves. They have a thin, elastic wing membranes between their fingers and legs that gives them an almost acrobatic flight capacity. The scientific name for their wings is Chiroptera which translates to ‘hand wing’. This allows better maneouverability in flight and thus allows bats to be such remarkable flying mammals.

There are more than 1.000 bat species around the world, which can be found in every continent except Antarctica. Judging from their unique wing size, bats are classified as either Mega-bats Megachiroptera or Micro-bats Microchiroptera. Mega-bats are tropical and ‘Old World’ bat species from Africa, Asia and Australia. They have large wingspans and bodies just like the Golden-Crowned Flying Fox with a 1.5 meter wingspan and weighing up to 1.2 kilograms. Mega-bats have fox like faces with long noses, large eyes and/or small ears.

Micro-bats on the other hand, have smaller wingspan and bodies and can be found worldwide. Unlike Mega-bats, they have diverse and distinct facial features. Mega-bats primarily feed on fruit, flowers and nectar and Micro-bats feeding primarily on insects and other broad and other diverse items.

Bats (except most fruit bats) orient themselves and hunt by means of a highly sophisticated system of echolocation, emitting high-frequency calls which cannot be heard by humans. Most fruit bats, such as the Grey headed flying-fox, have larger eyes and a sharp sense of smell as they find food by sight and smell.

Echolocation helps bats avoid collisions and help locate their prey as calls bounce off obstacles or prey. They make calls as they fly and listen to the returning echoes to build up a sonic map. Bats are sophisticated hunters and some bats can even distinguish between different insect species by their wing-beat frequency.

Interestingly, bats have a low reproduction rate and a long life expectancy and produce one baby per year with a life expectancy of 30 years. They are warm blooded animals with the ability to regulate their body temperature and are also able to maintain their energy efficiency by reducing their body metabolism, says Bert Lenten, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).

Dr. Merlin Tuttle the Honorary Ambassador for the 2011-2012 Year of the Bat campaign says education plays an essential roles in educating humans about the role of bats in maintaining healthy ecosystems and human economies. Bats are found nearly everywhere and approximately 1,200 species account for almost a quarter of all mammals. Nevertheless, in recent decades their populations have declined alarmingly and many are now endangered, though they provide invaluable services that we cannot afford to lose.

Simply because they are active only at night and difficult to observe and understand, bats rank among our planet’s most misunderstood and intensely persecuted mammals. Those that eat insects are primary predators of the vast numbers that fly at night, including ones that cost farmers and foresters billions of dollars in losses annually. When the numbers of bats decline, the demand for dangerous pesticides grow, as does the cost of growing crops like rice, corn and cotton.

Fruit and nectar-eating bats are equally important in maintaining whole ecosystems of plant life. In fact, their seed dispersal and pollination services are crucial to the regeneration of rain forests which are the lungs and rain makers of our planet. Many of the plants which depend on such bats are additionally of great economic value, their products ranging from timber and tequila to fruits, spices, nuts and even natural pesticides.

“People and bats can offer a lot of mutual benefit, even in our cities. Through our Year of the Bat activities, we have shown that bats are much more than essential to our planet and ecosystems than thought of earlier. They’re incredibly fascinating, delightfully likeable masters of our night,” said Bert of CMS..

So if we want to keep our cities bug and mosquito free, save the bat and clear your head of all those vampire stories. They are just that- stories!

Marianne de Nazareth- Independent Media professional and adjunct faculty, St Joseph’s College, and COMMITS, Bangalore




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