10 Fascinating Facts About Bats

How much do you really know about bats?

Bats have a bad rap: most people demean them as ugly, night-dwelling, disease-ridden flying rats, but these animals have enjoyed enormous evolutionary success thanks to their numerous specialized adaptations (including elongated fingers, leathery wings, and the ability to echolocate). Myth-bust and be surprised by the following 10 essential bat facts, ranging from how these mammals evolved to how they strategically reproduce.

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Bats Are the Only Mammals Capable of Powered Flight

Big-eared bat with its wings stretched out
Townsend's big-eared bat. Wikimedia Commons

Yes, some other mammals—like gliding possums and flying squirrels—can glide through the air for short distances, but only bats are capable of powered (i.e., wing-flapping) flight. However, the wings of bats are structured differently from those of birds: while birds flap their entire feathered arms in flight, bats only flap the portion of their arms composed of their elongated fingers, which are scaffolded with thin flaps of skin. The good news is that this gives the bats much greater flexibility in the air; the bad news is that their long, thin finger bones and extra-light skin flaps can easily be broken or punctured.

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There Are Two Major Types of Bats

Grey-headed flying fox
Grey-headed flying fox, a.k.a. a fruitbat, is a megabat. Ken Griffiths / Getty Images

The over 1,000 species of bats across the world are divided into two families, megabats and microbats. As you might have already guessed, megabats are much bigger than microbats (some species approach two pounds); these flying mammals live only in Africa and Eurasia and are exclusively "frugivorous" or "nectivorous," meaning they eat only fruit or the nectar of flowers. Microbats are the small, swarming, insect-eating and blood-drinking bats that most people are familiar with. (Some naturalists dispute this either/or distinction, claiming that megabats and microbats should properly be classified under six separate bat "superfamilies.")

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Only Microbats Have the Ability to Echolocate

The greater mouse-eared bat
The greater mouse-eared bat. Wikimedia Commons

When in flight, a microbat emits high-intensity ultrasonic chirps that bounce off nearby objects; the returning echoes are then processed by the bat's brain to create a three-dimensional reconstruction of its surroundings. Although they're the most well-known, bats aren't the only animals to use echolocation; this system is also employed by dolphins, porpoises, and killer whales; a handful of tiny shrews and tenrecs (small, mouse-like mammals native to Madagascar); and two families of moths (in fact, some moth species emit high-frequency sounds that jam the signals of hungry microbats!).

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The Earliest Identified Bats Lived 50 Million Years Ago

The fossil bat Icaronycteris
The fossil bat Icaronycteris. Wikimedia Commons

Virtually everything we know about bat evolution derives from three genera that lived about 50 million years ago: Icaronycteris and Onychonycteris from early Eocene North America, and Palaeochiropteryx from western Europe. Interestingly, the earliest of these bats, Onychonycteris, was capable of powered flight but not echolocation, which implies the same for the roughly contemporary Icaronycteris; Paleaeochiropteryx, which lived a few million years later, does seem to have possessed primitive echolocation abilities. By the late Eocene epoch, about 40 million years ago, the earth was well-stocked with large, nimble, echolocating bats, as witness: the intimidatingly named Necromantis.

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Most Bat Species Are Nocturnal

Horseshoe bat hanging upside down
A horseshoe bat. Wikimedia Commons

Part of what makes most people fearful of bats is that these mammals literally live by night: the vast majority of bat species are nocturnal, sleeping away the day upside down in dark caves (or other enclosed habitats, like the crevices of trees or the attics of old houses). Unlike most other animals that hunt at night, the eyes of bats tend to be small and weak, since they navigate almost entirely by bat echolocation. No one knows exactly why bats are nocturnal, but most likely this trait evolved as a result of intense competition from day-hunting birds; it also doesn't hurt that bats shrouded in darkness can't be easily detected by larger predators.

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Bats Have Sophisticated Reproductive Strategies

Newborn Pipistrelle bat
A newborn Pipistrelle bat. Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to reproduction, bats are exquisitely sensitive to environmental conditions—after all, it wouldn't do to birth full litters during seasons when food is scarce. The females of some bat species can store the sperm of males after mating, then choose to fertilize the eggs months later, at a more propitious time; in some other bat species, the eggs are fertilized immediately upon mating, but the fetuses don't start developing in full until triggered by positive signals from the environment. (For the record, newborn microbats require six to eight weeks of parental care, while most megabats need a full four months.)

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Many Bats Are Carriers of Disease

The rabies virus
The rabies virus. MyStorybook.com

In most respects, bats have an undeserved reputation for being sneaky, ugly, verminous creatures. But one knock against bats is right on the mark: these mammals are "transmission vectors" for all sorts of viruses, which are easily spread in their close-packed communities and just as easily communicated to other animals within the bats' foraging radius. Most seriously where humans are concerned, bats are known carriers of rabies, and they have also been implicated in the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and even the deadly Ebola virus. A good rule of thumb: if you happen across a disoriented, wounded or sick-looking bat, don't touch it!

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Only Three Bat Species Feed on Blood

Skull of a vampire bat
The skull of a vampire bat. Wikimedia Commons

One major injustice perpetrated by humans is to blame all bats for the behavior of just three blood-sucking species: the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi). Of these three, only the common vampire bat prefers to feed on grazing cows and the occasional human; the other two bat species would much rather lay into tasty, warm-blooded birds. Vampire bats are indigenous to southern North America and Central and South America, which is somewhat ironic, given that these bats are closely associated with the Dracula myth that originated in central Europe!

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Bats Sided With the Confederacy During the Civil War

Pile of bat guano
A pile of bat guano. Walt's Organic

Well, the headline may be a bit of an overstatement—bats, like other animals, don't tend to get involved in human politics. But the fact is that bat poop, also known as guano, is rich in potassium nitrate, which was once an essential ingredient in gunpowder—and when the Confederacy found itself short of potassium nitrate toward the middle of the Civil War, it commissioned the opening of bat guano mines in various southern states. One mine in Texas yielded over two tons of guano per day, which boiled down into 100 pounds of potassium nitrate; the Union, rich in industry, was presumably able to obtain its potassium nitrate from non-guano sources.

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The Very First "Bat-Man" Was Worshiped by the Aztecs

Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli
The Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli. Wikimedia Commons

From roughly the 13th through the 16th centuries CE, the Aztec civilization of central Mexico worshiped a pantheon of deities, including Mictlantecuhtli, the principal god of the dead. As depicted by his statue in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Mictlantecuhtli had a scrunched, bat-like face and clawed hands and feet—which is only appropriate, since his animal familiars included bats, spiders, owls, and other creepy-crawly creatures of the night. Of course, unlike his DC Comics counterpart, Mictlantecuhtli didn't fight crime, and one can't imagine his name lending itself easily to branded merchandise!

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Your Citation
Strauss, Bob. "10 Fascinating Facts About Bats." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/fascinating-facts-about-bats-4124369. Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). 10 Fascinating Facts About Bats. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fascinating-facts-about-bats-4124369 Strauss, Bob. "10 Fascinating Facts About Bats." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fascinating-facts-about-bats-4124369 (accessed March 30, 2023).