By LEE EVERTS
Special to The Charter
Stories and legends have often cast bats as a symbol of fear. Their beating wings against a dimly moonlit sky provide the defining element for those “dark and stormy nights.” And Hallowe’en offers the perfect conditions for this scene.
But do bats really fit this role? Like wolves, coyotes, crows, black cats and more, have we merely forced bats into a mould shaped more by myth and belief than fact and truth? On closer examination of these little mammals (they are not rodents as they belong to a different order — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_species), there is a good chance that we will discover the beauty of bats. Similar to other species, that beauty lies in the beneficial contributions bats make to the planet.
Bats are found in the myths of several cultures and in some cases they are actually seen in a favourable light. However, in Western culture, bats have come to signify the dark and unknown. As a result, they have become closely associated with the denizens of this nightmarish world, be they villains, Dracula or even superheroes such as Batman.
Alongside myth are tales that speak of how bats will entangle themselves in people’s hair. This is a very common and yet very false belief. Bats may have done so by accident. But it is not their objective. The fear is likely due to the fact that at night (most bats are nocturnal), bats fly low in order to feed on the insects that are often central to their diets. In so doing, they gravitate to lit areas such as backyards that are inadvertently drawing the insects.
Bats also emerge from a deep past. They have been on Earth for over 52-million years and during this period they have diversified into at least 1,232 existing species. This most certainly makes them our elders, a characteristic that alone should earn them our respect.
Over time, the various species of bats have developed richly diverse ways of life in terms of their behaviour, roosting and feeding. Approximately 70 per cent of bats feed on insects (insectivores) with the balance feeding on fruit (frugivores) or nectar (nectarivorous). Although myth would have us believe that vampire bats make up the majority of the order, in actual fact, there are only three species of vampire bats.
As members of their ecosystems, bats make a vital contribution to the biodiversity of the planet and are duly recognised for the “ecosystem services” they offer (2011-2012 has been designated as the Year of the Bat by the United Nations Environmental Programme, Convention on Migratory Species and EUROBATS). Ecosystem services, such as pollination and seed dispersal, help to ensure the health of the planet.
Being insectivores, some bats provide ecosystem services by feeding on air-borne insects such as mosquitoes. Feeding on insects means that bats can help keep in check the population of insects that may transmit unwanted diseases to people, other mammals or plant species. As frugivores, some bats play a critical role in seed dispersal while the nectarivorous bats, like bees, provide essential ecosystem services through pollination.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, three species of bats have been identified: the Little Brown Bat or Myotis lucifugus, the Northern Long-eared Bat or Myotis keenii (septentrionalis) and finally the Hoary Bat or Lasiurus cinereus. The Little Brown Bat is the most common on the island and is the sole species to make a home in Labrador.
Dependent on the time of year, Little Brown bats can be found in a range of locations. While the summer might find them in parks near a campfire, in the winter, they opt for frost-free locations where they can hibernate. So, for this purpose, abandoned buildings, cellars or caves often fit the bill.
As with other species, the activities of people sometimes place bats at risk. Bats are affected by chemical and light pollution, in addition to the loss of habitat through deforestation and urbanisation. Another serious problem posing a threat to bats is White Nose Syndrome (Geomyces destructans), a fungal infection that can destroy the wing membranes of bats. While it has not yet reached Newfoundland and Labrador, the disease remains an ever-present danger hanging over the bat population.
Sometimes bats might choose to share a home with people. Their tenancy may not be welcomed by the latter and so, the bats are killed. However, doing so often requires chemicals that may be harmful to bats as well as to humans. As the Department of Environment and Conservation of Newfoundland and Labrador explain, there are ways to remove these little tenants that will not harm them, yourself or your property.
Over the millions of years that bats have been on the planet, they have earned a valued place in its various ecosystems. There is no question that simply by living and existing, bats provide “ecosystem services” that are essential to the ongoing functions of Earth. Despite these realities, our perceptions and interpretations are sometimes overwhelmingly guided by an ignorance that serves as a nucleus for stories and myths that paint the bat as a danger.
It may be a tall order to set aside beliefs that cast bats merely as creatures to be reviled. Nonetheless, like many animals, we may not immediately recognise the significance of their presence in our world. However, we would definitely notice their absence.