You'll often hear that bats are dirty pests that people would be better off without.  Is this true?  Not really.  It turns out that many of the stories about bats are just myths.  Bats are not dirty and they generally don't bother people at all.  Bats will sometimes move into buildings or other places that people don't want them, but they're just looking for a home!  Bats are also beneficial in many ways.  In the US, most bat species eat insects.   Of course,  we would all really like bats to eat mosquitoes, but mosquitoes are generally just too small for bats to bother with, so they are not going to do a lot to help us get rid of those insect pests.  However, bats do eat many species of insects that would like to eat our crops or gardens, so keeping bats around is a good thing.

This image shows some of the insect species we don't like that bats are likely to eat

You also hear about bats carrying disease and making people sick.  It is true that bats can have rabies and you should never disturb a bat.  You may have also heard news reports on bats carrying diseases like SARS.  While the evidence is strong that bats were the initial source of SARS, this occurred in China, and further spreading of the disease seems to have come from human to human contact (click here for more information).  In general it's a good idea to avoid wild bats to keep everyone involved safe. Probably the biggest disease you hear about is rabies, which is a very serious disease. However, the risks of rabies from bats is generally much less than most people think it is.  You can find more information about rabies by going to this page from Bat Conservation International.

In general, most wild animals are afraid of humans, and bats are no exception.  If you disturb a bat, it will try to defend itself in the only way it knows how: by biting.  If you are bitten by a bat, you should seek medical attention to make sure you are properly treated.  However, bats do not seek humans out, so if you leave them alone, they will generally do the same for you!  If you see a bat in a place where it should not be, notify the appropriate authorities (generally the Department of Animal Control) so that trained professionals can handle the situation.

It's also important to leave bats alone for another reason - it's better for the bats.  Bats tend to like to live in places with precise conditions, which include limited disturbance from large animals like humans.  If you bother the bats, they may feel threatened and move on to a new place.  This is especially bad during the winter months when many species of North American bats are hibernating.  Since they are required to live off their stored fat (since there are few insects around for them to eat) they can die if they are disturbed when they should be hibernating.  So for their sake and yours, please just leave the bats alone!

This has become even more important as many bat species in North America are suffering from serious declines.  Many of the reasons for these declines seem to involve humans in some way, such as habitat destruction, but two of the biggest problems for bats have only become well-known in the last few years. In fact, bats are in so much trouble that there is real concern that they will be wiped out from large parts of their habitat, and their numbers have already declined dramatically. The two biggest sources of trouble for bats are described in more detail below.

If you want to help bats, your best bet is to take some action to help protect bats, by letting other people know how important bats are, lobbying for bats and their habitat to receive protection, and by donating to (and working with) one of organizations devoted to bats and their conservation. There are a number of different such organizations, but a few are listed below:

  • Bat Conservation International - focused on bats worldwide, but based in the US - the major such organization in the US
  • The Organization for Bat Conservation - based in Michigan
  • The Lubee Bat Conservancy
  • Basically Bats Wildlife Society - based in Florida - a small organization, but has worked on a variety of projects to help bats including studies on improving their diet in captivity, providing milk substitutes for juvenile bats, etc.
 
 
 

Bats in trouble - White Nose Syndrome

 
 
 

But it doesn't end there, unfortunately.  In 2006, a new disease was discovered called White Nose Syndrome (WNS). The disease is characterized by white fungal growths that are found on the faces and wings of the affected bats.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.
Credit: Marvin Moriarty/USFWS

This was first identified in caves in New York State, but it has rapidly spread over the past few years.  Some of the spread is probably due to bats migrating or changing caves during their normal motions, but there is good evidence to suggest that humans have contributed to the problem as well.  This map shows the most current information on where WNS is found in the US. As of right now, Georgia is still not known to have WNS, but with the recent discoveries of WNS in counties bordering GA in Alabama and Tennessee, it's likely only a matter of time until it is found in Georgia as well.


As you can tell from the map, the spread has been extremely rapid, and the impacts on the bats have been terrible. Estimates of the impact of WNS suggest that almost 6 million bats have died since WNS was first discovered. New studies have shown that the fungus that causes WNS is found in Europe and while bats there can be infected with the fungus, it's not clear if they have suffered from the same mortality or if they are immune to the fungus.

The illness is serious for the bats themselves but it also has the possibility of causing problems for people as well.  This map shows the economic benefits that we get from bats eating pests that would damage crops. The image is from Boyles et al. 2001 in Science.

So far the areas that are affected by WNS are not areas where we most depend on bats to protect our crops. However, if the rate of spread continues, it is highly likely that the loss of bats will begin to have a major impact on agriculture in the US as well.

 
 
 

Bats in trouble - wind turbines

 
 
 

Photo of windfarm by Alix Guillard, posted in Wikimedia commons, used under GNU free documentation license

The need to move to renewable, clean sources of energy is clear and important for the planet and our country. One such source of energy that has some promise is the use of wind turbines to produce energy in areas with strong, consistent winds.  The number of such facilities is fairly low at this point, but they are growing fairly rapidly. This has produced some problems for bats, because many of the areas of high wind correspond to migration paths for many species of bats. It saves the bats a lot of energy if they are able to let the wind push them along, and this can bring them right into the areas where the blades of the turbines are located. Studies show that bats are able to avoid the blades themselves in many cases, but there have still been extremely high fatality rates at some locations. Part of the problem seems to be the changes in pressure that occur as the blades spin. These pressures are sufficient to cause trauma to the bats, often damaging their lungs and killing them even without direct contact with the blades.  Numerous studies are underway to try and find ways to keep bats away or change the rotation of the turbines and make them less dangerous to bats.  Hopefully we can find a way for bats and wind turbines to coexist!  For more information I'd recommend starting with Bat Conservation International's page on bats and wind power.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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