Conservation // 5 min Read

From Dusk to Dawn: Why Should We Care about Bats?

Written by Lydia Moore, Palmetto Bluff Conservancy Research + Education Coordinator

May 15, 2021


Why should we care about bats?

When people learn what I do, they often ask me, “Why bats?” To which I respond, “Why not bats?” Bats are incredible! There are more than 1,400 species worldwide and 1 out of every 4 mammalian species is a bat. They have a global distribution and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They have an unbelievable diversity in what they look like, from the smallest bat, the 2-gram bumblebee bat, to the largest, the giant golden-crowned flying fox with a 6-foot wingspan. They vary in where they live, with some bats roosting in trees, some in caves, and others in tents of their own making! Some bats are loners and prefer their own company while others roost in large colonies that can number in the millions. They play more ecological roles than what we can cover in this post.

Seminole bats are a local species that roosts in the foliage of trees
Seminole bats are a local species that roosts in the foliage of trees.

If we want to focus our discussion of the part bats play in ecosystems solely on the foods they eat, we will see that in this aspect of their life alone they are extremely diverse. Bats as a group have a varied diet. Frogs, salamanders, fish, scorpions, spiders, insects, blood, nectar, pollen, fruit, birds, and even other bats are all on the menu for this mammalian order.

There are many bats around the world that eat fruit. Because these bats can travel long distances within a night, can cross habitat boundaries, and defecate while in flight, they are unparalleled in their ability to disperse seeds over large geographic areas. This makes them paramount in maintaining tree biodiversity in tropical rainforests. These same skills make fruit bats vital in reforesting areas that have been deforested.

Bats that drink nectar pollinate over 500 species of plants, including baobabs, bananas, mangoes, saguaro cactus, and guava. The coevolution of bat and flower has shaped what nectar bats and the flowers that attract them look like. Many of the flowers that bats pollinate are of agricultural significance to us, including agave - the source of tequila. Through pollination, bats provide a means to keep agave genetically diverse and more resistant to disease. Quite simply, without bats, we would not have healthy agave or many other economically important fruits.

Northern yellow bats are a coastal species that roost in Spanish moss and in dead palmetto fronds.
Northern yellow bats are a coastal species that roost in Spanish moss and in dead palmetto fronds.

While bats as a group are diverse in the foods they consume, the majority of bats (about 70%) eat insects. Bats have extremely fast metabolisms and eat large quantities of insects each night. They are the only major predator of night-flying insects and are particularly fond of moths and beetles, insects that can be pests at some point of their life cycle. A recent study showed that bats eradicate more pests than birds at cacao farms in Indonesia, providing an economic boon for Indonesian chocolate growers worth roughly $780 million each year. In the United States, the voracious appetite of insect-eating bats provides a free pesticide service to the US agriculture industry - a service with an estimated annual price tag of $23 billion. You read that right: $23 billion.

Why should we care about bats? I could list a myriad of reasons. Bats play many vital ecological roles. Their global ecological significance is astounding. They provide us with quantifiable economic services. Bats have personalities. They are curious. But most of all, they have an intrinsic right to exist – just like us. Globally, their populations are in decline, largely due to our activities. To save them, we need to care about them. Last month, I discussed some negative stereotypes about bats. Let us shift our mindset of bats from one of fear and misunderstanding to one that lauds their beneficial traits. If you want to help bats, be an advocate and spread the word! The South Carolina Bat Working Group is always looking for volunteers to help with fieldwork and outreach. Contact Lydia Moore at lmoore@pbconservancy.org to learn more.

Hopefully, I have convinced you that bats are worth our attention. Next month we will discuss some threats bats are facing and what you can do to help.

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