The big brown bat is one of 10 bats native to Ohio. Bats may be a spooky symbol of Halloween, thanks in large part to their fangs and nocturnal nature, but they are important pollinators. Equally helpful, bats offer “natural mosquito control,” with individual bats eating up to 500 of the insects every night. (Photo courtesy of Ohio Division of Wildlife)

By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Staff Writer

Bats symbolize all that’s creepy about Halloween.

It may be because they’re nocturnal and often live in dark, damp caves. Or it could be that vampires are said to transform into bats, a connection made popular by Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” and nearly every horror film.

But they’re not evil, according to Michelle Rumschlag, a naturalist with the Hancock Park District.

“They aren’t bad. They shouldn’t get a bad rap,” she said. “And they’re kind of cute. They have cute little smooshed-up faces.”

Of more than 1,100 bat species, only three species are vampire bats that drink blood. And they all live in central South America, she said.

Rumschlag believes bats are misunderstood because they aren’t often seen out and about. They’re nocturnal creatures, coming out at night to hunt for food. But it’s not unheard of to see a bat out during the day, she said.

“We wake up at night for various reasons — go to the bathroom, get a drink, you know. So that’s not so weird to see one out during the day,” said Rumschlag. “But if it’s on the ground, because that’s when it’s vulnerable, obviously, something’s kind of weird.”

Bats do get rabies, she said, but usually die right away. “They don’t carry it for very long like a raccoon,” she said.

And bats are actually beneficial because they eat a tremendous amount of insects — up to 500 mosquitoes per night.

“It’s a lot, so they’re natural mosquito control,” said Rumschlag. “They have to eat a lot because flying takes up so much energy. They have to eat half their weight each night.”

Bats are the only mammals that can fly, she noted.

Bats have their own order, called Chiroptera. They can be found worldwide, with the exception of the Sahara Desert and Antarctica, said Rumschlag.

Of all the species, 10 are found in Ohio: the big brown bat, Eastern red bat, Eastern small-footed bat, evening bat, hoary bat, Indiana bat, little brown bat, Northern long-eared bat, silver-haired bat and tri-colored bat.

They come in all sizes with the smallest, the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat or the bumblebee bat, weighing less than a penny and having a wingspan just over an inch. The flying fox bat, found in the tropics, weighs more than 3 pounds and can have a wingspan as large as 6 feet.

While a bird’s wing has a fairly rigid bone structure and the main flying muscles move the bones at the point where the wing connects to the body, the bat has a flexible wing structure, It’s much like a human arm and hand, except it has a thin membrane of skin extending between the “hand” and the body, and between each finger bone. The rest of the body is covered in fur.

Bats can fold their wings in, and hundreds can fit in a small space.

“They can get in any little crack. So when they’re in people’s homes, if they can get their head through, they can get through. It’s amazing,” said Rumschlag.

Some bats can live 10 to 20 years. Because they can fly, they have very few predators, she said.

Most bat species have developed a navigation system called echolocation to help them locate food. It’s like a sonar system, said Rumschlag.

“They’re sending out sound waves and it hits an item and it comes back,” she said.

Bats eat a variety of foods, she noted. In our area, a bat’s diet is mostly insects. They eat moths and lightning bugs, while other species eat fruit, pollen, fish, frogs, scorpions and even other bats.

“There’s another myth: People think they’re trying to get in your hair. Bats know you’re there. If you think about when you’re outside, you have mosquitoes around you, so they’re coming to eat potentially the mosquitoes,” she explained.

Bats are also pollinators; over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination.

Some bats migrate, but many in this area hibernate during the winter, Rumschlag said.

“If they wake up, they’ll starve to death. They can use their fat reserve and then they’ll end up starving to death,” she said.

If a bat does get in your house, you don’t have to kill it.

“Knock them down with a net or a broom. Wear gloves — they have sharp little teeth. Scoop them up and let them go or open up the windows,” Rumschlag said.

It’s the unknown about bats that probably unsettles people the most, she said.

“When they come in your house, it’s like a mouse and runs around and it’s not supposed to be there. It startles you. Even though I know about them, I still duck down,” she laughed.

Wolf: 419-427-8419
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