Vampires are… Pollinators?

Contributor: Ria Bagga

Vampires, mangos, tequila, and furry faces; what do they all have in common? Bats! When you think of bats, you might picture Count Dracula with his ominous music, eerie dark caves with little light (thanks, Bruce Wayne), or their infamous prowess in echolocation. Bats have a conflicted reputation around the world, considered as good omens by some cultures, or a vampire’s disguise by others, the latter of which most of us are more familiar with. But there’s a lot more to bats than being Halloween’s formidable fanged mascot. Let’s pull out our detective hats and take a bite (pun intended) into what bats are really up to.

Bats account for 20% of all mammalian species.

That translates to roughly 1,250 species of bat (Kunz et al., 2011), occupying nearly every continent, except for Antarctica! But strangely enough, only three bat species are classified as vampire bats, named after their blood-specific diet. Also, just an FYI, vampire bats do not rely on human blood. Instead, they only require a daily dose of 2 teaspoons of blood from cows, sheep, or horses. That’s such a minute amount that bats can oftentimes get away with feeding without even waking the animal (Hagen, 2009); mosquitoes are probably a closer match to Dracula than bats are!

The vast majority of bat species have a far more diverse diet, which we’ll get to in just a bit. But now that we’ve been introduced to the bats’ extended family, let’s move onto the next aspect of their lifestyle: their occupation.

Bats work the night shift.

Though bees, butterflies, and wasps are invaluable pollinators, they can’t take all the credit. Bats - and many other insects - do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work when it comes to pollination; they’re like the Frankie Jonas of pollinators. At lights out, bats head out to work, foraging on a wide list of food items, from insects, nectar, fruits, seeds, small vertebrates and even blood (with different species having different preferences). A menu fit for a feast, right? Well, now knowing that eating is a major role in their job description (the ultimate dream job), let’s find out what makes them so qualified:

Thank bats for tequila.

And mangos. And bananas. And date palms, anthurium plants, cashews, durian, and even agave, a major component of alcoholic beverages such as tequila. Today, over 530 species of flowering plants rely on bats for pollen and seed dispersion! Bats may as well be pollinators’ long-due poster child, helping maintain various economically and ecologically important plants. Fruit-eating bats can actually account for as much as 95% of the seed dispersal responsible for growth in recently-cleared rainforests (U.S. Department of the Interior)! I say bats are overdue for a toast, and the next point just might convince you of the same.

Bats are competitive speed-eating champions.

They would outmatch any person who claims to hold the world record for most hot dogs consumed in ten minutes, easy. Well, if they substituted hot dogs with insects, that is. Over two-thirds of bat species are insectivores, which have been recorded to consume an average of 30% of their body mass in insects, each night (Kunz et al., 2011)! Here’s another way to visualize it: if a single bat consumes up to 3000 insects in a single night, and that is multiplied by per day, per million bats, that’s a whole LOT of insects. Bats’ bugs-be-gone, anyone? This directly impacts humans: by keeping herbivorous insect pests’ populations in check, bats prevent infestation of staple crops, such as cotton and corn. In addition to crops, bats are also amazingly good at looking out for one another.

When bats act like mama birds.

As described earlier, bats have a big appetite. I mean, flying around constantly does that, but it’s so much so that missing two meals can lead to starvation! Bats cannot store energy as fat for very long, so they constantly have to supplement their energy levels with a consistent dietary intake. If a bat can’t make it out for food one night, members of a bat’s roost will regurgitate their meals, mama-bird style.

So the next time you’re at the movies, choosing an outfit, sharing a drink - give a shout-out to bats. With Halloween around the corner, use someone’s bat or vampire costume as an excuse to talk about bats’ significant role in the ecosystem. Let’s break down the negative stigma surrounding bats, bite by bite.


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