Kansas is home to many species of diverse wildlife, spanning large and small, creepy to majestic, and scaly to furry. One type of animal that is probably not high on the cute and cuddly list of many people is the bat. Bats have an undeservedly bad reputation for being scary, dangerous and just plain gross.
Today, we’ll look at why bats are actually pretty cool and why we’re lucky to have them in Kansas.
Kansas is home to 15 different species of bats. Some live here year-round, some migrate to different parts of the world with the seasons, and some are occasional, accidental visitors to our state. Finney County has several species of bats, including the silver-haired bat, hoary bat, big brown bat and Western small-footed myotis. Other species recorded occasionally include the little brown bat, big free-tailed bat and Brazilian free-tailed bat. Few people are lucky enough to see these shy, secretive mammals, who are most active at dawn and dusk.
The bat is the only mammal in the world capable of true, sustained flight. They are, on average, faster and more maneuverable than birds. They are surprisingly diverse with over 1,200 species worldwide, which means that 20 percent of all known mammals are bats. Bats are part of the Order Chiroptera, a word which means “hand-wing,” a nod to the fact that their wings’ membranes are stretched over the fingers of their front legs. An older English word for bat is “flittermouse,” although bats are not closely related to mice or other rodents, but rather to moles, shrews and hedgehogs.
The hoary bat is the largest bat in Kansas, weighing up to one ounce. The hoary bat also has the distinction of being the fastest bat in Kansas, attaining speeds of more than 40 mph while flying. The average speed of a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby is 37 mph. The little brown bat and Eastern pipistrelle, the smallest bats in Kansas, weigh around 0.3 ounces. To put this in perspective, a deck of playing cards averages 3.5 ounces.
Some Kansas bats, like the hoary bat and silver-haired bat, are solitary and rest in the foliage of trees. Others, like the little brown bat, live in large groups and prefer more protected areas such as caves and crevices. A group of bats is called a colony. The place where a colony of bats lives is called a roost or a hibernaculum.
Bats use an ability called echolocation to navigate the world around them and catch prey. They emit high-frequency sounds, some humans can hear and some they cannot, and process the information received when the sound bounces off objects and returns to them. This helps them map their surroundings. While not blind, bats have poor vision and rely on echolocation and specially designed ears to “see” their surroundings.
All species of bats found in Kansas feed on insects. A single big brown bat can eat as many as 9,000 insects a year. A small colony of bats (around 100) may eat 100,000 pounds of insects per year. Bats provide a valuable service to agriculture, eating many pest species that damage crops and bother livestock, such as moths, beetles, leafhoppers, flies, mosquitoes, gnats, midges and wasps. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the pest control services bats provide to U.S. farmers and ranchers are worth approximately $3 billion annually. This is in addition to the pollination services that fruit- and nectar-feeding bats provide as they move from plant to plant.
Contrary to popular myth and legend, bats do not seek out humans to injure, bother or frighten them. Even the largest bats found in Kansas are timid, shy animals that pose no threat to humans when treated with the same respect shown to other wildlife. Bats do not attack when molested, preferring to fly or crawl away if they can, and only biting defensively if handled. Bats, like all mammals, can get rabies, but the frequency of rabies in bats is greatly overestimated by most people. Of the 587 animals submitted this year for rabies testing in Kansas, only 20 tested positive, and of those 20, only two were bats. Most rabies cases in Kansas involve skunks, so the vast majority of bats who share our state are perfectly safe to be around.
Bats are often misunderstood and maligned, but they really are the best. They eat insects that carry disease and annoy us, help agriculture to the tune of billions of dollars each year, and are the only mammals that can truly fly. Let’s give bats a chance.
Sarah Colman is general curator at Lee Richardson Zoo.