In October, it's commonplace to see ghosts and goblins walking the streets. People hang spiderwebs and carve jack-o-lanterns and revel in the scarier parts of life, like monsters, witches, vampires, and bats. Just the word BAT evokes a frightening image for many people. Most imagine bats to be blood-sucking, rabies-carrying, blind hair-tangling beasts that enjoy tormenting innocent individuals. These descriptions, however, are just not reality. Unfortunately, many people fear what they do not understand, and bats are among the most misunderstood animals in the world.
Beyond the misunderstanding, hype, and paranoia, exists an interesting, beautiful, and beneficial group of animals. Many people think that bats are flying rats; in fact, the German word for bat is "fledermaus", which literally means "flying mouse". But bats are not rats! Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, which means "hand-wing", a separate order from rodents. This is one of the most diverse groups of mammals, with almost 1000 species worldwide. In Idaho, there are 14 species of bats, and all eat insects, not blood. Idaho's 14 species of bats feed on everything from moths and beetles to scorpions and mosquitoes, consuming many forest and agricultural pests. Scientists estimate that one little brown bat can consume up to 600 mosquito-sized insects in one hour!
Bats, in general, are exceptionally resistant to diseases. Contrary to popular belief, humans are not any more likely to contract rabies from a bat than from any other mammal. Like most other mammals, bats can contract rabies, however, it is a common misconception that most bats are rabid. The fact is, less than one half of one percent of wild bats contract rabies. This is an average infection rate among mammals.
Worldwide, 99% of human rabies cases come from dogs. Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. The only ways to transmit the rabies virus is when the saliva from the animal enters the internal system of another individual. This generally occurs through a bite or contact with the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth, or an open wound). Simply touching a bat's fur or being in the same room as a bat does not constitute an exposure to rabies since there is no naturally occurring, airborne variant of the rabies virus.
Reportedly high instances of rabies in bats, is primarily due to a biased sample. Most bats submitted to the Center for Disease Control are suspect individuals to begin with. This biased sample creates an illusion of a rabies epidemic. If you, or your children, encounter a wild bat, leave it alone and contact your local Idaho Department of Fish and Game office. This is the best way to avoid disease transmission.
Finally, the expression "blind as a bat" identifies another myth. In fact, bats have two forms of "vision". Bats use a form of radar called echolocation. While flying, they emit high-frequency sound pulses that strike objects in their path. The echoes return to the bat and enable the individual to determine the size, shape, and distance of moving and stationary objects in their environment. This is so precise; they can detect objects as fine as a human hair, even in total darkness. So, in fact, a bat is unlikely to fly into your hair, since it can "see" where every hair on your head is! Insects are not to be outdone by echolocation, however. Many bugs have developed ways to detect these sound pulses. This enables them to avoid capture and certain death. This is why many bats choose to hunt with just their keen eyesight.
As you can now see, bats deserve our respect and appreciation. They are beautiful and intelligent creatures that are particularly beneficial to humankind. If you would like to learn even more about these amazing animals, contact the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Idaho Falls at (208) 525-7290. You can obtain a special Nongame leaflet and poster on Idaho's bats. For teachers, the department has a video that can be checked out for educational purposes. Finally, go online to Bat Conservation, International at www.batcon.org, to learn more and get involved. Remember, these creatures need our understanding, and education is the key.