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October 30, 2001
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DESERT BLOOM: Bats in the Desert

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Those softly squeaking, flying mammals that come out around sunset.

BATS!

They are amazing, the only flying mammal in the world, but some people find them frightening. It's no wonder, really. When you remember any Dracula movie, you know that Hollywood has portrayed these important animals as both scary and dangerous. I must admit, I do hang plastic bats around my front door for Halloween, to spook the trick or treaters. But on behalf of bats and bat lovers everywhere, let me say that they have gotten a bad rap, and they just don't deserve it.

There are many myths about bats. For instance the term "blind as a bat." Well, they see quite well. But they also have great sonar, which is why they don't get caught in your hair. No matter what you've heard.

And vampire bats? They only live in Latin America and they don't kill people. In fact, medical researchers are studying them because of the anticoagulants they produce. These might be useful in treating human health problems.

Bats are not related to birds, nor are they mice or any other kind of rodent. They are more closely related to people than to rats. Actually, they are unique unto themselves - they are the Chiroptera. There are nearly one thousand different species of bats in the world, with 44 species in the United States. Twenty of these appear in Nevada.

If you've ever seen a mass of bats flying about when the sun goes down, then you know they are generally social animals. Since they are mammals, the mothers suckle their young. They are fastidious groomers who carry very few parasites. I just found out that some bats greet each other by hugging!

They are vitally important to the desert ecosystem, and to many other environments as well. Bats have been flying around planet Earth for about fifty million years. In the desert, they have evolved alongside the plants and insects that can survive this difficult environment. With all that shared history, these organisms have learned to use each other to one degree or another, and sometimes to rely on each other.

Many of the bats we see around here survive on insects. In a single hour, one brown bat can eat twelve hundred small insects, each the size of a mosquito. You can imagine how much insecticide we'd have to spray to get rid of that many mosquitoes, that fast. They will also eat moths, beetles and spiders, among others. Given the chance, bats will feast on corn earworm, one of the most devastating crop pests in the country. Some garden pests can hear bats 100 feet away, and have learned simply to avoid those places where bats are flying. So bats eat some pests and repel others.

Not only do bats help to keep down the populations of noxious and annoying insects, they also help desert plants to survive. A number of different cacti, agave and yuccas rely on bats to pollinate their flowers. This is how the plants are able to create seeds, and reproduce.

Bats have problems, though. When their habitats are destroyed, they have no place to roost. As a result, they sometimes move into people's homes, between walls and into crawl spaces, which does not make them popular. Bats fly after insects, which are often attracted to street or house lights. That also makes them less than popular with people who don't know how important and not dangerous bats are.

More than half the American species are either threatened or endangered. A lot of the threat to bat survival comes from the fact they are eating insects that have been sprayed with pesticides. Habitat loss is another calamity. Given all this information about how terrific bats are, I'm sure that you are now thinking to yourself, "How can I help safeguard our local bat population?"

Researchers are finding that providing bat houses for roosts can be effectively restore habitat. There are many plans for building these on the web at www.batcon.com, or you can buy one at a garden supply. You might want to make sure that the bat house is not next to your own. To attract bats (or to attract insects that bats like to eat), plant some lemon balm and mint, salvia, or almost any plant that blooms late in the day or early evening. If you must contact someone to get bats out of your house, make sure the person is informed about any of the proper methods for bat proofing a building, and will not just spray your house with pesticide.

Finally, bats are no more likely to spread rabies than any other animal. The way to avoid getting bat rabies is not to pick up a bat. If you can pick it up, then there is a good chance it is sick. Call animal control instead.

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Bats

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