For centuries, bats have been called sinister and spooky, likely because of their beady eyes and razor-sharp fangs. But there’s more to these nocturnal creatures than meets the eyes. There are more than 1,300 species of bats in the world, making them the second most common group of mammals after rodents. Some weigh less than a penny, while others have a wingspan of six feet, but all are impressive and vital members of their ecosystems.
The scientific name for bats is Chiroptera, which is Greek for “hand wing.” That’s because bats have four long fingers and a thumb, each connected to the next by a thin layer of skin. They are the only mammals in the world that can fly, and they are remarkably good at it. Their flexible skin membrane and movable joints allow them to change direction quickly and catch mosquitoes in midair.
There are two main types of bats: microbats and megabats. Most bats are microbats, which eat insects like moths, that come out at night. Vampire bats are the only species of microbats that feed on blood rather than insects. But not to worry—they prefer to drink from cattle and horses, not humans.
To navigate dark caves and hunt after dark, microbats rely on echolocation, a system that allows them to locate objects using sound waves. They echolocate by making a high-pitched sound that travels until it hits an object and bounces back to them. This echo tells them an object’s size and how far away it is.
In contrast, megabats live in the tropics and eat fruit, nectar, and pollen. They have larger eyes and a stronger sense of smell than microbats but have smaller ears because they don’t echolocate. There are more than 150 species of megabats, which are usually, but not always, larger than microbats.
Bats can be found nearly everywhere, except in polar regions, extreme deserts, and a few isolated islands. They spend their daylight hours hiding in roosts around the tropics, dense forests, and wetlands. Roosts are where bats go to rest, usually in cracks and crevices that keep them hidden and protected. The most common roosts are existing structures such as caves, tree hollows, and old buildings.
Seasons often dictate where any bats choose their homes. depending on the time of year because they hibernate during the winter. For example, in the winter, some may hibernate in caves, and in the summer, they’ll return to an attic. Because good roosts can be hard to find, many live in giant colonies with millions of other bats.
No matter where they spend their seasons, all bats roost upside down. They can hang from their hind feet and legs while resting. Scientists still aren’t sure why bats do this, but here’s one theory: Bats have to fall into flight, which makes hanging upside down the best way to escape quickly.
Despite all the misconceptions surrounding bats, they are very important to humans and the environment. Insect-eating microbats consume millions of bugs a night, acting as a natural pest control for plants. Thanks to bats, farmers might rely less on toxic pesticides, which costs them millions of dollars each year. Nectar-drinking bats pollinate plants so they can produce fruit. In fact, more than 500 plant species, including mangoes, bananas, and avocados, depend on bats for pollination. Finally, fruit-eating bats help disperse seeds so rainforests can grow, helping to mitigate the effects of widespread deforestation.