By Stephanie Rowe
Conservation Chat UK have kicked off their big bat survey event this week (a whole week of bat surveying), so what better time to learn even more about these wonderful creatures!
Bats are a unique group of flying mammals belonging to the Chiropteran order. Worldwide, there are an estimated 1,400 different species, accounting for around 20% of all mammal species. In the UK, we are lucky enough to host 18 of these species, with 17 of them breeding here. Although Indonesia tops the bat front, boasting an impressive array of 175 bat species.
Bats are an incredibly diverse species. The world’s largest bat comes in the form of the flying fox, who showcases an impressive wingspan of up to 2 meters. In contrast, the Bumblebee bat (the world’s smallest) weighs in at just 2 grams! So diverse are bats in fact, that some of the only places you will not find them are the Arctic and the Antarctic!
While bats in the UK opt for an insect-based diet, the worldwide bat menu boasts the likes of frogs, fruit, blood and even fish!
“Blind as a bat”
Contrary to popular belief bats are not blind. However, instead of seeking out prey visually, they opt for a much more sophisticated method of detection. Echolocation is used by bats as they emit high frequency sounds into the surrounding landscape. These sounds echo back towards them, providing information on the size and shape of prey or how far away it is.
Like many other species, bat populations are facing a global decline hastened by anthropogenic forces. Worldwide, a major driving force in population decline of bats is habitat loss through urbanisation. As humans increasingly impinge on natural environments, bats inevitably seek refuge in buildings and homes. Unfortunately, this increased contact between species has propagated conflicts amid an already mis-conceptualised species.
Threats more specific to the UK include habitat fragmentation due to construction of road networks and housing. Bats use hedgerows and landscape features such as woodland trees and ponds to navigate during commutes as well as for foraging areas. Not only do roads break up these features and create wide open spaces in which bats are averse to crossing, but the loud noise and lighting can be very confusing. Anthropogenic noise such as that generated by roads, can conceal prey and reduce hunting success. Those bats that do continue flight paths disturbed by roads, often tend to do so in line with the height of traffic, evidently increasing the risk of collision. Threats to bats stimulated by habitat loss are extensive. Land used increasingly for intensive agriculture systems is sprayed with pesticides, having detrimental effects on insect numbers and subsequently British bats main food source.
A Misunderstood Species
Bats are one of the most cited species associated with phobias. Bats across the world are largely associated with bloodsucking, vampire-lore and are unreasonably allocated pest status. Some typical myths include the notion that bats are associated with the devil and sinister elements of religious practises. These greatly misinformed associations have been exploited by the media who further instil fear by disseminating non-scientific stories and propagating myths about the species. In some countries, bats are actively persecuted in relation to these beliefs. In China, bats were a symbol of good fortune, a symbol that may now have diminished in a post-Covid world.
Bats and Disease
An unavoidable and prominent topic when it comes to bats, is of course, disease. When we consider the large proportion of mammal species worldwide that bats account for, they do not host any more disease-causing viruses than other mammal or bird groups.
In the UK, just a small number of bats have been found carrying rabies viruses called EBLV (European Bat Lyssaviruses). The two known rabies viruses found in the UK are in fact, not the same as the classical rabies virus. This virus has never been found in a bat in Europe. In short, if you are not handling bats, you have no chance of EBLV being transmitted to you.
Bats have been heavily associated with Covid-19 since the outbreak. Consequences of this being all the evidence needed against the deforestation and intensive farming that squeezes human and animal populations together, inevitably causing a devastating spill over of disease.
“All this because of a man who ate a bat”. A phrase I am sure we have all heard in recent weeks. However, surely now the effects of our mistreatment of wildlife are clear. We cannot afford to keep depleting, degrading, and destroying this plant. It has come at the cost of not just livelihoods but lives. The worldwide treatment of animals is perhaps finally under the scrutiny it deserves.
If you are interested in learning more about bats, you can start in your own back garden! Click HERE to head over to #thebigbatsurvey section of the website to find out how to get involved in our FREE bat event.