Getting People Batty About Bats
Dorothy Barr and Roger Harrod
Rosamund Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park
Syracuse, New York
Bats are among the most misunderstood, yet beneficial, animals on earth. Of the 21 mammalian orders, they are the most numerous next to rodents; almost one quarter of all mammal species are bats. They have been called “the Planet’s Most Diverse Order of Mammals” (Bat Conservation International). They are found on every continent except Antarctica, and vary in size from the tiny “bumblebee bat” (Crasionycteris thonglongyai), which weighs only 1.5-2 grams, to the giant flying foxes (Pteropus spp.), weighing 1 kg and with wingspans of almost two meters!
We are learning a great deal about bats, but there is still much which we don’t know, even about the common species. Largely this is because most are nocturnal and quite small, and consequently are very difficult to study. In this country, we know more about some of the endangered bats such as Myotis grisescens and M. sodalis, the gray bat and the Indiana bat respectively, than we do about some of the common bats we see flying around our houses at night.
Partly that is because these federally protected bats have been better studied. It is also because both use caves extensively during the year and it is easier to study them because they tend to congregate in one place. In contrast, much less is known about solitary animals such as the red bat (Lasiurus borealis), which roosts singly and migrates south during the winter. There it apparently overwinters in leaf litter on the forest floor (even this has only just been discovered) (BCI Curriculum).
Bats belong to their own order, the Chiroptera, and they have been around for at least 50,000,000 years. However, the approximately 967 species are divided into two suborders, the Megachiroptera and the Microchiroptera, which are so different that many scientists now believe that they actually evolved separately.
There is such enormous diversity among bats that it is impossible to make generalizations about them except that all bats have wings and they are the only true flying mammals. Beyond that, their basic body structures are similar, but their appearance and habits vary enormously.
Although the vast majority of bats are very beneficial to humans and to the environment, they are not only misunderstood but are even persecuted by many people. Our presentation will begin with a “BatQuiz,” a fun way to engage zoo visitors and to dispel common misconceptions. Next we will briefly discuss the diversity of bats, using slides (from Bat Conservation International) of a variety of different bats from all around the world.
Then we will focus on ways to engage the public, even those with bat phobias who would rather not even look at the animals. These approaches include:
- Knowing your bats not only those on display at your zoo, but your local species as well. Be sure you know your stuff; bats are so amazingly diverse that it’s difficult to make generalizations.
- Draw upon visitors’ personal experiences. But be prepared to deal with misinformation and with people who insist on telling you about the bat that flew into Aunt Suzie’s hair.
- Personalize the bats. That does NOT mean anthropomorphizing, but rather making comparisons which people can easily access. For example, point out anatomical details thumbs, fingers, feet. Talk about their social lives, interactions, economic importance, or echolocation, and make comparisons. Compare echolocation to ultrasound; dolphins; elephants; radar; or dog whistles. And if there are babies in the display, make the most of them everybody loves babies!
- Consider setting up a Bat Table away from the exhibit if your bats are in a nocturnal display. We will have a sample table with materials, handouts and activities.
- Be familiar with public health issues in your area. Controversial topics are bound to come up.
We hope that the sessions will provide plenty of opportunities for questions, and we will adapt the presentations to the needs and wishes of the audiences. Handouts will be included.
References And Resources
Altringham, John D. Bats: Biology and Behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Bat Conservation International (BCI). The number one source for information on bats. Visit their website at www.batcon.org or write them at P.O. Box 162603, Austin, TX 78716-2603.
Fenton, M. Brock. Bats. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Griffin, Donald R. Listening in the Dark: The Acoustic Orientation of Bats and Men. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Hill, John E. and James D. Smith. Bats: A Natural History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Neuweiler,Gerhard, Tr. By Ellen Covey. The Biology of Bats. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Nowak, R. M. Walker’s Bats of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Organization for Bat Conservation. 1553 Haslett Road, Haslett, MI 48840; www.batconservation.org.
Speleobooks. Lots of materials on both bats and caves. P.O. Box 10, Schoharie, NY 12157-0010; www.speleobooks.com.
Tuttle, Merlin D. America’s Neighborhood Bats. Revised edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.
Tuttle, Merlin D. and Donna L. Hensley. The Bat House Builder’s Handbook. Austin: Bat Conservation International, 1993.
Tuttle, Merlin D. and Daniel A. R. Taylor. Bats and Mines. Austin: Bat Conservation International, 1998.