Photo: Silver-haired Bat by Jason Headley.

Bats are facing a scary future

Oct 13, 2022 | Edge of Extinction, Species

Susan Holroyd

Susan Holroyd

Calgary Regional Coordinator at Alberta Community Bat Program of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

This Halloween, the spookiest story we can tell about bats is what our world would be like without them.

Our only flying mammal (take that, Batman) is a pest control superhero, a shaper of ecosystems, and one of the longest-lived small animals around. But bats are facing some strong headwinds these days, from habitat loss to the spread of a deadly disease – white-nose syndrome (WNS).

Here are some things you need to know about these fascinating creatures before you slip into your bat-themed costume (you are going out as one of the coolest animals around, right?) and why we all need to be #FriendsForBats.

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Photo: Little Brown Myotis Bat by Jason Headley. At about one month of age, Little Brown Myotis can fly and find food on their own. Each mother can identify her offspring based on scent and calls.

Bats are big eaters

It’s been estimated that bats provide services worth anywhere from $3.7 to $53 billion dollars per year for the agricultural industry in the United States. That’s because bats can eat their own weight in insects every night! In fact, one study found that the value of agricultural land in areas where bat populations have been decimated by WNS was lower than in areas with still healthy bat populations.

Bats can see tiny insects (and other stuff) in total darkness

Bats can “see” and find tiny prey in the dark using their sophisticated echolocation abilities, which they can also use to navigate around obstacles. Bats like to eat the mosquitoes flying above your head, but they are far better at flying than to ever get caught in people’s hair (despite what you see in movies). (More on bats use of sound in this story).

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Photo: Hoary bat by Jason Headley. Hoary bats are generally solitary; however they may sometimes roost in caves with other bats and form groups during migration and the breeding season. Hoary bats are long-distance migrants found throughout the Americas. 
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Photo: Silver-haired Bat by Jason Headley. Silver-haired bats are most commonly found in boreal or coniferous forest near bodies of water. These bats are solitary animals.

Bats live long lives 

If you see a bat in the night sky, you might be watching an animal that is in its teens or even twenties. One bat observed in Alberta was almost 39 years old – an extraordinary age for a small mammal, most of which won’t make it past their third birthday. This age estimate was based on banding data – the bat had been previously identified and was rediscovered decades later at a hibernation site.

The girls like to hang together

Summer colonies of bats or large groups of bats are almost always groups of females hanging with their offspring. Females often return to the exact same location every year, where they are joined by their daughters from previous summers. The result is a very socially connected group of animals.

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Photo: Little Brown Myotis Bat by Jason Headley
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Photo: Western Small-footed Bat by Jason Headley. Western small-footed bats are small bats, having a total length of 8 to 10 cm, and a wingspan of about 24 cm. Females are larger than males. These bats are nocturnal and feed on moths, beetles, and flies.

There’s a lot we don’t know about bats

Up until seven years ago, there was no coordinated effort to monitor North American bat populations. We still have only basic ideas about where many western bats hibernate (unlike their eastern cousins, western bats don’t gather in big numbers in caves). And until an innovative project led by WCS Canada to collect bat poop under bridges (more on that soon), we didn’t know how fast WNS was spreading west in Canada.

Bats are in trouble and that’s spooky

Thanks to the innovative research efforts of our western bat program, we now know that WNS has arrived in Saskatchewan. We found the fungus that causes the disease in a number of places in the province. WNS has been absolutely devastating for eastern bats – wiping out entire populations and landing species like Little Brown Myotis on the national endangered species list. Most bats impacted by white-nose syndrome only give birth to one pup per year; it is very difficult for them to bounce back from such huge impacts.

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Photo: Little Brown Myotis Bat by Jason Headley
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Photo: Big Brown Bat by Jason Headley. The big brown bat ranges from southern Canada to Colombia and Venezuela. This species is found most commonly in areas of deciduous forest. They have uniform brown fur, measure 9 to 14 cm in length and weigh 11 to 25 g.

Bats are cool, and need our help

Our Alberta Community Bat program is not just leading research on the threats facing bats; it is working to find ways to help bats survive – and thrive. Whether that is working with farmers to increase understanding of bat services and to maintain on-farm habitat or talking to people and groups in communities throughout the province to bust myths and build support, the program is the friend bats need right now. 

But bats need more friends. The Alberta Community Bat program has set a goal of raising $5,000 to support our work to spread the word about all the good that bats do. We’re getting close to halfway to our goal, but with a Halloween deadline fast approaching, we need all the support we can get to make life just a little easier for our high-flying friends. 

You’ll be rewarded with a chance to win some great batty prizes and with the knowledge that you are helping a sophisticated, social and superbly adapted species that has seen its habitat – like old trees used for roosting – steadily decline. Of course, helping bats directly by maintaining habitats like older trees, beaver ponds, and vegetation along rivers and creeks is one of the best ways you can help, besides spreading the word about why bats are important or helping them get a better reputation.

That’s why our community program works hard to help people with projects to help bats – and to learn to love them as much as we do.

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