Spooky season is right around the corner, which means you’ve probably seen a dramatic increase in the number of bat-themed items at your local Target. Banners, costumes, and even these delightful bat pun cards for all your comedic needs. But have you ever paused and thought: why are bats a Halloween symbol? After all, aren’t we more scared of slugs, or centipedes, or some other creepy crawlies?
Let’s set the record straight. Bats aren’t scary. We know, we know. This is a hot take. But just hear us out, and we promise by the end of this article, you’ll see why bats are not at all scary and actually culturally and scientifically relevant to the way we live. Not to mention that they’re kind of adorable.
The History Between Bats And Halloween
Plus, bats live in caves, which, according to the Library of Congress, is an incredibly mysterious habitat due to its “association with the underworld and death.” As far back as the 20th century, Americans have also associated bats with death or bad luck.
Another connection between bats and all things creepy originates from Dracula, another figure that dominates the popular Halloween imagination. A spooky, posh vampire preying upon innocent young women in the night? Sign us up! Once Bram Stoker 1897’s literary classic depicted vampires shapeshifting into bats, well, there was no turning back on that one.
The Truth Behind Nonfictional Bats
While real bats are hardly as glamorous as Dracula or Batman, they still have their own charm and importance. One of the most crucial roles that bats serve is in agriculture. Because of the fact that some bat species eat pesky insects that cause damage to our crops, studies estimate that they save more than $1 billion per year in crop damage and pesticide costs in the US corn industry alone. By eating various insects, bats actually reduce the need for pesticides and are considered crucial to cotton farming in certain regions of the world like Brazil.
Additionally, since other bats also feed on nectar, they are the perfect pollinators for various plants such as mangoes, figs, bananas, and dates. As the sole pollinators for agave, they are probably who you’re counting on for that delicious agave syrup you use in everything from banana bread to chocolate pudding. Some bats also eat fruit, which makes them great candidates for seed dispersal. These bats can account for up to 95% of the early growth seed dispersal in recently cleared rainforests. Finally, bats strengthen biodiversity, act as necessary prey for certain predators like owls, and support ecosystem health.
Do Bats Actually Suck Human Blood?
The connection between bats and Halloween is tangential at best, but it all comes from the fact that bats are nocturnal, and 3 bat species (out of a total of over 1,400) drink blood. Nicknamed “vampire bats” by some, the common, white-winged, and hairy-legged bats hunt only when fully dark. They feast on the blood of local mammals and birds in Central and South America.
Another fun fact? Their saliva prolongs bleeding with anticoagulants that inhibit blood clotting near the bite wound for maximum efficiency. Eugh, gross. Bats have an incredibly strong immune system protecting them from lots of viruses, but they are carriers of many of these viruses like rabies. Often, they become victims of these viruses as a result of deforestation. Don’t worry, bats typically do not bite humans or give them rabies unless it is out of self-defense.
As for COVID-19, the source still remains unknown. But rather than hating bats as a potential vector, it is important to realize that the exploitation of wildlife increases the transmission of pathogens to the human population. And as a matter of fact, bats play a huge role in restoring exploited habitats. They even have the star potential to help us find a vaccine.
The Endangered Status Of Bats
The US Fish and Wildlife Service calls bats “one of the most important misunderstood animals.” I, for one, am inclined to agree. However, because of their widely-misunderstood nature, bats are being needlessly killed across the globe “by the thousands.” In Madagascar, farmers often get angry at their local bats (the flying fox) for eating their crops and shoot them. This reduced the endangered species to less than 30,000.
In addition, since they need a safe space to hibernate in during the winter, colonies of bats can be easily killed off with a single fungus or human activities that cause destruction to habitat. One widespread fungal disease killing millions of bats in North America is called white-nose syndrome (WNS). This fungus, likely introduced from Europe, is a lethal one for bats often found on the surface of the cave they are hibernating in. This fungus has recently found its way into California.
Even though caves are not often kind to the bats, the bats provide some important benefits to the cave. Through their poop, they release important nutrients in caves that support the cave organisms and community.
Currently, over 200 species of bats are considered critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Bats are often subjected to low food availability as a result of the changing seasons and unexpected changes in climate that affect their ability to survive as well. To help preserve vulnerable bat populations, reduce your pesticides to save more food for pest-eating bats, protect ideal bat habitats such as dead trees for them to roost in, and continue to learn about them through research or by joining a bat conservation organization.
So are they scary predators or fuzzy cuddlies? Ponder deeply in front of the next bat-themed costume you see and let us know what you think!