FROM ZOO TO YOU The misunderstood world of bats

By Alyssa Mechler

When you think of bats, you may think of them as creepy critters who lurk in caves and only come out at night. Bats are often misunderstood because of their nature; most people do not stay up late to watch these amazing critters. These flying mammals play a vital role in the ecosystem, acting as pest control, pollinators, and seed dispersers. They are incredibly unique as the only mammal capable of true flight.

Bats are found on every continent except Antarctica and are the second largest order of mammals with over 1400 species. They face many threats throughout the world, including habitat destruction, pollution, and many more stressors.

Some bats are insectivorous, consuming insects as their specialty. On average, a bat can consume half of its body weight in insects each night. Bats can help farmers by being nature’s pest control. Not only do they help eat pests that can affect crops, but they also consume pests that can cause disease and harm humans. 

For example, the Mexican free-tailed bats found in Central Texas consume the Corn Earworm Moth, which attacks commercial plants. Another species called the big brown bat is a generalist and eats a variety of different insects including the cucumber beetle, whose larvae are a major corn pest. While insectivorous bats are important to the ecosystem as pest control, nectar eating bats assist with the pollination of plants.

Pollinators are essential to the production of seeds and fruits around the world. Bats who consume nectar also pick up pollen and move it along to other plants as they feed. These nectar-eating bats play an essential role in the cultivation of commercial products from agave to balsa wood to cloves. Fruit-eating bats play a role in the dispersal of seeds across rainforests. 

While a large amount of the world’s rainforests has been cleared, these bats can help by defecating the seeds of pioneer plants which can serve as shelter for more delicate plants to grow. This helps initiate regrowth of forests. While many birds and other animals also are seed dispersers, bats are unique because of their nightly foraging. They cover more distance and scatter the seeds across more area than the birds and mammals that eat seeds.

Bats do so much for us it is important that we return the favor, even if we think they are a little spooky. Many bat species are listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. We can help bats by installing a bat house, which can provide them with shelter and keep them out of other buildings. Consider leaving that dead tree (unless, of course, it is a safety concern); many bats think dead trees are a great place to rest. 

The brown bat can sometimes be found between the bark and wood, while others roost in the tree. Avoiding pesticides is another great way to help bats. Bats are nature’s pest control, and pesticides can result in them being poisoned. Lastly, keep your pet cat indoors. Cats pose a risk to bats and birds alike, and we need bats and birds to help pollinate, control insect populations, and help disperse seeds. While you may not see bats often, they are essential to the world around us.

Alyssa Mechler is the conservation awareness manager at Lee Richardson Zoo.