Americans love to hate bats, and we celebrate their creepiness especially around Halloween. This is not the best time of year for people who are very fond of bats, like me. I could be celebrating the many good things bats do for us, but instead I spend my time separating bat fact from fiction, often for naught.
I'm not under the illusion that dispelling a few myths will change the culture's tradition of treating bats with fear and disdain. But if I can help improve their image even a little, perhaps people will be more determined to deal with a truly mysterious and scary threat to bats known as white-nose syndrome.
If white-nose syndrome continues to eliminate bat populations in North America, the disruption to the natural order could cause trouble for humans. Namely, we could be overrun by crop pests, mosquitoes, and other insects that provide a steady diet for bats, which can devour 50 percent of their weight in insects nightly - 150 percent if pregnant or lactating.
In four years, white-nose syndrome has spread from the East Coast to the foothills of the Rockies. It's wiping out bats with no sign of our being able to understand or control it. A recent study predicted that the first extinctions of many bat species will occur within 10 years.
A small colony of bats used to live on my property and feed over my gardens, but they were gone this summer. The evening air was silent and ominous without them.
One common myth about bats is that they are typically rabid. In fact, like us, they die if they get rabies. The truth is that man's best friend, the dog, accounts for most human rabies deaths worldwide. Over the past 60 years, less than one American a year died from rabies infections attributed to bats.
Also contrary to myth, bats can see, though their eyes are adapted for low light. Scientists recently discovered that they have the same photoreceptor cells that most mammals possess - cones for daylight and color vision, and more sensitive rods for night vision.
Bats don't typically drink blood; most feed on insects, plant nectar, or fruit. Vampire bats, a rare species found in Central and South America, are the only species that feeds on blood. And even these bats are helpful to humans, thanks to an anticoagulant found in their saliva.
Stories of bats getting stuck in people's hair are also exaggerated. Bats might dive for flying insects near a person's head, but they don't aim for anyone's hair.
With such myths put aside, I hope Americans will treat bats with tolerance and understanding. We need to protect bat habitat. We need to encourage the safe use of lumber-treating chemicals that may harm bats. And people who want to keep bats from roosting in their homes should consult local wildlife experts about humane control measures.
If bat myths were not so entrenched, there might be more appreciation of bats' positive impact and more urgency about addressing white-nose syndrome. The only really scary thing about bats is their future.