7 Surprising Facts About Bats

Bats are more than creepy B-movie villains. Check out these fascinating facts about bats, which are mammals just like us. (Well, maybe not just like us.)

Also learn about the 10 bats most at risk from white nose syndrome.

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Bats Pollinate Flowers

Butterflies and bees might be more familiar (and generally welcome) pollinators, but bats also fill that niche. While most flower-pollinating bats of the world are found in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, several species pollinate cactus in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Among them: this lesser long-nosed bat, an endangered species.

Bats play roles in local ecosystems that humans consider positive – whether by pollination or insect-eating (big brown bats, for instance, make a nice dent in the cucumber beetles that give farmers costly headaches). Some people have gone so far as to build bat houses to invite bats onto their properties.

There Really Are Vampire Bats

Yes, there really are vampire bats – three species of them, in fact. But they don't turn into human vampires (they're about the size of a teacup), and they don't live in Transylvania (they call Central and South America home). Adults do, however, live on the blood they suck from living creatures – usually livestock or birds, depending on the species, but occasionally, yes, humans. Creepier than their super-sharp fangs (so sharp you'd never even feel the pinch as they bite in) is the way they stalk their prey by walking – a unique trait among bats. If you're looking for a redeeming trait, remember that vampires, like all bats, are mammals that nurse their young. It's just that in this case, those bat pups grow up to be blood-suckers.

Bats See with Their Ears

Bats are among the mammals to use echolocation to move through the dark not only without bumping into trees and other obstacles, but to hunt – and hunt with precision. Many bats eat flying insects, which flit and flutter, bob and weave in the deepest depths of the dark night, and yet bats can track them down by bouncing high-pitched calls off their tiny bodies, and understanding the echoes in much the same way humans perceive the world around them by discerning different wavelengths of light.

And then there's the pallid bat, pictured here. A resident of western North America, this bat, well endowed in the ear department, is unique for hunting not by air, but by land. "With its huge ears, it can detect insects simply by listening for footsteps," according to Bat Conservation International, "and it can respond accurately to a split-second sound from up to 16 feet away." It's also immune to the sting of the scorpion, which it sometimes eats.

Bats Eat Bugs ... But Fruit, Too

When they aren't maligned for sucking blood, bats are usually thought of as voracious insect-eaters. They are. But their diets are as varied as they are numerous. With more than 1,100 species of bats on Earth, they account for about one-fifth of all mammals, so it's not surprising that bats have evolved so many strategies for making a living from their environments, and so many different appearances.

Take this Gambian epauletted fruit bat, which eats figs and other fruits across southern Africa. Its face looks more like a unicorn without a horn than a rodent without its wings.

Bats Are Dying of a Mysterious Disease

No one has figured out why, but a new disease called white nose syndrome is on the march in U.S. caves, destroying hibernating bat colonies as it goes. Since first being noted in 2006 in New York, 9 species of bat have been diagnosed with white nose syndrome, at least 1 million individual bats have died, several species are considered threatened with extinction because of it, it has spread to at least 14 states and Canada ... and scientists have found no way of stopping it.

There are 45 species of bats in the United States and Canada (including the white nose syndrome-threatened big-eared bat pictured here), according to the U.S. Geological Survey – 25 of which are vulnerable to the disease. Among those: half of the bat species that spend their lives eating insects like mosquitoes, flies, moths and a variety of farm pests.

Bats Migrate

Like whales, birds and Monarch butterflies, their more attractive cousins in the animal kingdom, bats migrate. Some migrate relatively short distances, from caves where they hibernate, to forests where they spend the summer hunting and rearing their young (often in large maternal colonies). Others migrate thousands of miles. The hoary bat, pictured here, spends summers in Canada and the U.S. but migrates to Central and South America. It can be seen passing by in waves along with birds, according to Bat Conservation International.

Migration, however – and the relatively little that is known about how bats move from place to place – make them vulnerable to collisions with wind turbines. As wind farms are built and studied, people are learning more about how to build them without slicing up the local – or migrant – bat populations.

Joel Sartore / National Geographic/ Getty Images
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Bats Are a Tourist Attraction

In Austin, Texas, the Congress Avenue Bridge draws as many as 100,000 tourists every year. Why? Because of the spectacle of Mexican free-tail bats – 1.5 million of them, the largest bat colony in the world – which emerge en masse at sunset to gorge themselves on insects. It's not the Grand Canyon, but it is a natural wonder of sorts.