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1:51 PM Thu, Nov. 15th

Bats benefit us more than you might think

If you are terrified by bats or consider them no more than a winged mouse, be assured that their benefits far outweigh any perceived negative impact they have.

Bats are found almost everywhere on the earth, except in extremely hot desert environments and the cold polar regions. There are more than 1,000 species throughout the world, and 28 species that can be found in Arizona.

However, there are commonly only eight species that habitat in Mohave County: Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), California Myotis (Myotis californicus) Pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus), Silvered-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), Spotted bat (Euderma maculatum), Townsend's Big-eared bat (Plecotus townsend), Western Mastiff bat (Eumops perotis) and Yuma Myotris (Myotis yumanensis)

Bats are unique in the animal kingdom because they are the only mammals to have evolved true flight.

Most species also possess a system of acoustic orientation, often called "bat radar," but technically known as echolocation.

Bat radar

Most bats employ echolocation to help them find prey, shelter, etc., during their nighttime activities. Echolocation involves emitting a sound and listening to the echo of that sound as it bounces off objects, This ultrasonic ability helps bats interpret the distance, size, speed and even the texture of an object.

Echolocation is particularly useful to bats for locating small, flying insects at night, such as moths and gnats. Most species also have an acute sense of smell, and contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind.

Bats have the same basic arm and hand bones found in humans and most other mammals. The bat's hand and finger bones are very long and slender and there are only four digits (fingers). The delicate-looking skin between the arms, fingers, body, legs and feet looks fragile but is extremely resistant to tearing on sharp objects.

Size can vary greatly, ranging from five ounces with a 6-inch wing span, to a little over 3 pounds with an 80-inch wing span.

Seventy percent of the world's bats feed on insects; they are referred to as aerial insectivorous bats. The remainder feed on fruit, nectar, meat and fish; they are referred to as nectivorous. None of the blood-feeding "vampire" bats live in the United States.

Feeding time

Aerial-insectivorous bats capture prey while flying. They begin their feeding at dusk and are often seen flying over open areas, such as parks. One aerial-feeding bat can capture hundreds of mosquito-sized insects in just one hour!

Aerial-insectivorous bats may also be drawn to insects such as moths flying around lights. Some bats are insectivorous gleaners and hunt by capturing insects off the ground or from vegetation. The prey of insectivorous gleaners includes centipedes, scorpions, beetles, flying ants, roaches, grasshoppers, katydids and larvae from certain crop pests.

Bats will eat half their body weight in insects a night and will travel 30 to 50 miles each night for food. They consume many hundreds of thousands of tons of insects each year. That's a lot of insects.

'Bee' bats

Nectivorous bats feed on pollen and nectar. As they move from one plant to the next, they provide a valuable pollination service. Two of the three species of nectivorous bats are found in Arizona: the Lesser long-nosed bat (an endangered species) and the Mexican long-tongued bat.

They feed on pollen and nectar and are critical to the pollination of columnar cacti such as the saguaro, organ pipe, and they also gather nectar from the agaves. Biologists calculate that the pollination of agaves and various cacti would drop approximately 97 percent without our nectivorous bats.

Shy guys

Bats are very shy creatures, and like most wild animals, avoid contact with humans while going about their business of eating, reproducing and avoiding predators.

Bats vary greatly in their habits, depending upon their species. Some fly in daylight, others at dusk or dawn, and still others in the dark of night. Some are found exclusively in remote caves, others behind the shutters of your house. Some hibernate while others migrate long distances.

Although their general appearance would not seem to deem it, bats are clean. When a bat returns to its roost for its upside-down sleep, it will spend as much as 30 minutes cleaning itself before settling down to sleep. Wherever it can reach with its long, pink tongue will be thoroughly bathed.

Human toll

Bats can live from 10 to 20 years, depending on the species and circumstances. Accidents claim some, freezing temperatures claim some and natural predators claim some. But the most significant causes of premature death is from the activities of humans.

Bats are in serious decline nearly everywhere. Forty percent of the bats in the U.S. and Canada are endangered or candidates for such status. Even small disturbances in their habitat can seriously threaten their survival. The use of insecticides is responsible for killing bats in great numbers. When bats consume the chemical-laden insect, the bat becomes poisoned, too.

Bat droppings (guano) are harvested and sold as a very valuable fertilizer. In addition, guano has unique organisms, including bacteria, useful in detoxifying wastes, improving detergents and producing gasohol and antibiotics.

We really need these amazing animals around.