The hypnotic hymn of the cicadas has been fading like a dying wind each
evening as the air grows cooler with the arrival of autumn.
In the night sky, the Big Dipper, called the Celestial Bear in Micmac
Native American legend, is spilling fall colors onto the foliage of
Among the neighborhoods, seasonal decorations are blooming like the
yellow goldenrod sprouting throughout the sand dunes and along the
Halloween is on prominent display in some yards, with skeletons,
ghosts, witches, monsters and bats creating spooky dioramas. Of all
these goblins, the bat is the least scary to me.
In fact, bats are downright cool and have suffered for millennia from
bad publicity. Bats are not blind, they are not rodents, they are not
dirty, they do not attack people and they will not lay eggs in your
hair no matter what Barney Fife said on the “Andy Griffith Show.”
Also, they do not want to bite you on the neck and suck your blood,
well, unless you are a cow living in Latin America.
There are more than 1,300 species of bats throughout the world with 17
species in North Carolina. Among mammals, they are the only species
that can take to wing and fly. Along the coastal plain and the barrier
islands, the eastern red, evening, big brown, tri-color and Seminole
bats are most common.
I remember as a young boy waiting on muggy summer evenings for the
flickering mercury-vapor streetlights to illuminate their greenish glow
under a darkening sky. Soon, the insects, mesmerized by the light,
would swirl around like clouds of a gathering storm. Then, the bats
would show up, zipping in and out of the curtain of darkness
surrounding the light, gobbling up the bugs.
All the bat species in North Carolina are insect eaters and one bat can
consume thousands in just one night. Without the bats, think of all the
extra mosquitos buzzing around looking for exposed flesh. Mosquitos are
the ones that want to drink your blood, not bats. Bats leave their
roosting sites at dusk and head out to forage for insects throughout
the night. Some bat species prefer terrestrial insects, some like
aquatic insects and some consume both.
Many of these insects are not only the irritating pests that buzz
around our heads, but they also are like flying teeth that take a big
financial bite out of agricultural operations. As a natural pesticide,
it is estimated that bats save around $3 billion annually on
pest-control activities and reduce damage to crops.
Bats are agile pilots and use their echolocation system to navigate and
locate prey. Their flight may look erratic and spastic as they nimbly
maneuver after prey that are desperate to escape. Their flight is
powered by wings that are pretty much like our hands with webbing
between the fingers. To catch a bug, they emit a high-frequency
vibration from their throat and nose. This sound wave then bounces off
an insect, which the bat can hear with its ears. It can then pinpoint
the size and location of the insect and close in for the capture.
As mentioned earlier, bats are not blind, contrary to the old saying
“blind as a bat.” This adage has been credited to the philosopher
Aristotle when he penned, “For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of
day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature
most evident of all.” With apologies to Aristotle, most bats have good
vision and use their sight when flying beyond the reach of their
Bats are in trouble though. Loss of habitat through development and
human activities, the use of pesticides limiting their food source,
disease and the outright killing of bats are taking its toll. In North
Carolina, three species are listed as endangered, one is threatened and
a few others are listed as special concern.
One disease in particular is devastating some bat species. The fungus
Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is the cause of a disease called
white-nose syndrome, which was detected in North Carolina in 2011. This
fungus will grow on the exposed skin of bats, their nose, ears and
wings, causing tissue damage. The disease also causes them to become
active during winter hibernation. Bats rely on their body fat to
provide just enough energy while at rest during hibernation to hold
them over until they emerge when food sources become available. This
activity causes them to use twice as much energy during a time of year
when they are not feeding. Burning these fat reserves leads to
starvation and dehydration.
The fungus favors damp temperatures ranging from 54 to 67 degrees
Fahrenheit and is transmitted by contact. The disease easily spreads
when bats congregate in proximity to roost and hibernate in cool moist
places like caves. Bats can live 10 to 20 years, but since they usually
have only one pup a year, this disease can cause localized populations
to disappear quickly. In North Carolina, the disease is mostly in the
mountains and the Piedmont without yet being detected on the coast.
Even though misleading myths and superstitions continue to swirl around
them, bats do have a few champions. Dr. Matina Kalcounis-RŁeppell,
professor and department head of biology at the University of North
Carolina Greensboro, has been studying bats for more than 25 years
after spending a summer assisting with bat research as a young
One of her studies focused on the relationship between water quality
and the feeding behavior of bats in the Piedmont region of North
Carolina. Bat feeding activity was monitored upstream and downstream
along a creek where effluent was discharged from a wastewater treatmentplant. Nutrient levels downstream from the discharge resulted in poor
water quality. Bats were observed feeding on insects above and below
the discharge area. Of the five bat species present, one species
favored foraging for insects in the area of poor water quality, two
species avoided the area of poor water quality and two species did not
have a preference.
“Bats respond to water quality,” says Kalcounis-RŁeppell. Her study
suggests that patterns of feeding activity by certain bat species may
be a way to gauge the water quality in urban watersheds.
Ed Corey, inventory biologist with the North Carolina Division of Parks
and Recreation, has been documenting bat activity within the state
parks. Corey has spent many long nights setting up mist nets to capture
and study the diversity of bats.
Since some bats are wary of the nets, Corey can also identify the
different species through acoustical monitoring. Each bat species has a
different signature call that is recorded and then identified. Corey is
also looking for the presence of white-nose syndrome to determine
whether the disease is spreading east. He relates the disease as an
“intense athlete’s foot” that irritates the skin, resulting in itching
that burns precious fat. He cautions that even though white-nose
syndrome has not been documented on the coast, “lack of detection does
not mean that it is not there.”
It is theorized that the coastal temperatures may be too warm for the
fungus to thrive. Corey’s work documenting bats and other park flora
and fauna contributes to the responsible development of park facilities
and trails ensuring that species are not negatively impacted.
Spooky or not, bats are beneficial. Some bats prefer eating nectar,
pollen or fruit, and thus, help pollinate plants and spread seeds. Even
though we have our own Transylvania County in North Carolina, we do not
have any of the three species of vampire bats.
Despite their reputation, the medical community is looking upon vampire
bats favorably. An enzyme in their saliva, called desmoteplase, shows
promise as a clot-busting drug for stroke patients. With a sense of
humor, the researchers have named the drug Draculin in honor of Count
Dracula. The use of their saliva also dispels the myth that all bats
are carriers of rabies. Like a dog or cat, bats can catch rabies, but
they are not naturally infected with the virus. Interestingly, the
military experimented with a use for bats that is downright scary.
During World War II, extensive research, called Project X-Ray, was
conducted by the military to assess the feasibility of bats to deliver
incendiary bombs into enemy territory.
Even the superhero Batman used the sinister reputation of bats as a
weapon against his adversaries. In Detective Comics No. 33, 1939, Bruce
Wayne stated, “So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their
hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible … a … a … a
bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a bat!”
Even though bats are often referenced as evil, macabre and linked to
the underworld, many cultures view bats positively. They represent
happiness, good fortune, life, transition, rebirth and courage to face
our darkest fears. Even with the good, I think it will be hard for bats
to overcome their preconceptions. Any respectable Halloween story
should probably have started out describing a dark and stormy night
with flashes of lightening illuminating an abandoned mansion full of
bats flowing out into a thick, low fog and flying above the silhouettes
of shadowy mummies lumbering with outstretched arms. As the spooks and
goblins venture out tonight looking for treats, I think a number of
them will resent the good in bats and be dressed as the Caped Crusader.