Bats get a bad rap. Not only thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but more modern depictions and myths shed a dark and eerie light on these flighted mammals. However, aside from the few hematophagic species (which is definitely a diet straight out of a horror film, but bares no real danger to humans), there is nothing scary about bats except their imminent extinction caused by none other than us humans, undoubtedly the planet’s greatest villain. One Critically Endangered species in particular, the New Zealand Greater Short-tailed Bat, was selected as one of the top 25 “most wanted” lost species in our Search for Lost Species initiative. It was last seen 50 years ago and was possibly wiped out thanks to none other than that great villain, humankind, bringing invasive predatory species into its habitat.
Learn how we can dispel the many unfounded myths about bats and bring them back from the brink in this Q&A with Global Wildlife Conservation CEO and Bat Conservation International board member, Wes Sechrest.
Q. How did you become involved with BCI?
Several years ago, I was invited to a BCI Board meeting by JD Mitchell (a current GWC board member) and Walter Sedgwick, both close colleagues and avid conservationists. I have also been involved in research on bat conservation, including setting global priorities for bats, assessing the conservation status of bats on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and collaborating with the Bat Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. BCI is also headquartered in Austin, Texas.
Q. Why is it important that we work to conserve various bat species?
All biodiversity is critical for the planet, both for properly functioning ecosystems and for the long-term persistence of humanity. Bats are no different–besides being amazing animals in their own right, from the tiniest, the barely over one-inch long Bumblebee Bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) of Thailand and Myanmar, to one of the largest, the Philippines’ Endangered Golden-crowned Flying Fox (Acerodon jubatus), with a 5.5-foot wingspan. Bats are major components of many ecosystems, as seed dispersers, pollinators, predators and prey. They are also necessary in many human-dominated landscapes, from pollinating agave to preying on major agricultural pests, providing more than $3.7 billion a year to U.S. agriculture alone.
Q. What are some of the current threats to bat survival?
There are many threats to bats, but the most important are habitat loss and invasive species, especially on islands. There are new and insidious threats like white-nose syndrome, which is causing major declines in U.S. cave-dwelling bats. This disease is caused by a fungal pathogen introduced from Eurasia. Also, as wind power increases, there are issues with siting wind farms in major migratory routes, as the turbines can cause high mortality. In some places, hunting is a major case of decline, especially for the larger megabats, or fruit bats.
Q. The collective Internet seems to have figured out that bats are pretty cute, but what are some myths we need to dispel about bats?
A. Bats are beneficial to people, and in many ways that we are only beginning to understand. As long as bats are left alone, there are no dangers to people. Although rare, rabies can occur in bats, so a relevant wildlife specialist should be brought in to deal with injured animals. Also, in places where other disease is a threat, such as Ebola in West and Central Africa, bats should not be hunted, and their rainforest homes should be kept intact to prevent displacement of bat colonies. Overall, the wonder of bats has helped dispel myths in cities like Austin, where the nightly emergence of millions of Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) from the Congress Avenue bridge brings thousands of spectators. In fact, this population of bats is a major reason why BCI relocated its headquarters to the city!
Q. Do you have a favorite bat species?
A. They are all my favorite! The diversity in form and function across the over 1200 species of bats in the world is amazing. The Lesser Short-tailed Bat (Mystacina tuberculata) of New Zealand even spends a large amount of time foraging on the ground for insects, since there are no other native land mammals, such as rodents, which would fill this ecological niche.
(Top photo:Madagascan flying fox photo by M. Watson via Arkive)