Chaa Creek’s Bats of Belize
These airborne environmentalists work the night shift to keep our rainforests healthy
They are the most populous mammals on the planet and one of nature’s greatest success stories, and depending on your perspective are either cute vegetarian flying foxes or scary Bela Lugosi vampires.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, bats are here to stay and, once you get to know them, you’ll be glad.
There are more than 1100 different kinds of bats sharing the planet with us, from the tiny Kitti’s hog-nosed, or bumblebee bat of Thailand and Burma – the world’s smallest mammal, up to flying foxes with six foot (two metre) wing spans. Making up a quarter of all mammals alive today, bats are found all over the world.
In Belize, some 75 species of bats account for about 58% of the mammal population, thriving on the many types of fruits, flowers, insects and other food sources to be found throughout the country. And, fitting right in with Belize’s biodiversity and multicultural human population, the variety of bat species is impressive, with Argentine Brown Bats, Southern Yellow Bats, Northern Yellow Bats, Little Yellow-shouldered Bats, and Red Bats as well as Great, Pygmy and Toltec Fruit Eating bats, Hairy Big Eyed Bats, Lesser and Greater Doglike Bats, and fifty shades of Naked Back and Big Naked Back Bats, to name just a very few.
All those different types of bats share one thing in common; their forelimbs have evolved into wings, making them the only mammals in the world naturally capable of flight (sure, Australia has sugar gliders and there are lemurs, flying squirrels and other tree dwellers that have learned to glide, but bats are the only mammals specifically built to fly).
Referring to bats as flying rats is unfair to these clean, well-groomed and highly social animals who, like us, are more closely related to primates.
And when you consider the important contribution bats make to our eco system, your esteem for these airborne environmentalists will only increase.
Many different plants depend on bats for pollination. In fact, in Belize there are flowers specially evolved to accept the long snout of certain bats, which are their only source of pollination. Also, bats are essential in spreading many types of fruits, nuts and other vegetation through their nutrient-rich droppings. Consider that, and bat’s’ importance in pest control, and you get an idea how valuable they are. One cave system in Mexico supports a population of some 20 -25 million bats who each day consume megatons, yes that’s megatons, of insects, according to Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) biologist Dan Dourson.
Now, imagine what would happen if bats weren’t around to pollinate flowers and reduce insects and you get an idea to how important they are to the elegant, intricate and fragile balance of nature.
Even the feared, much maligned and misunderstood vampire bats are fascinating, once you get to know them. Out of all the different bats in Belize, only two species are vampires, the rare Hairy Legged Vampire Bat, which only feeds on large birds, and the Common Vampire Bat, which feeds on livestock and can be an agricultural pest.
Talk about complex evolution – these little guys not only adjusted their facial features to allow them to get into close contact with skin, but they have infrared sensors built into their noses to detect heat and where arteries and veins are closest to the surface, and then have razor sharp teeth (without enamel so that they can stay sharp), a grooved tongue that can enter the wound and draw blood up, and saliva that contains a cocktail of at least three active ingredients that promote bleeding. One is an anticoagulant to stop blood from clotting, a second keeps red blood cells from sticking together and a third inhibits the constriction of veins near the wound.
And while many people justly fear rabies, less than ½ of 1% of bats carry rabies. The vast majority of people being infected are by dogs and cats, and in the wild by racoons and skunks.
However, as with all wild animals, it’s best to leave bats be and not try to touch or play with them, both for your own good and the health of the bats, which are very sensitive and stress easily, sometimes going into shock and even dying when molested.
So the next time you see one of those impressive flocks of bats swooping across the sky at dusk or congregating in trees, don’t be alarmed. Be grateful that these airborne mammals still continue to fulfil an important evolutionary niche and environmental function after all these years.
Just like their fictionalised human counterpart, Batman, these nocturnal, unsung and misunderstood heroes continue to protect our world and way of life.
Some Interesting Bat Facts (with thanks to Wildlife Belize.com)
• Bats are the only mammals that can fly.
• Bats generally have one baby per year.
• Bats live for 15-25 years.
• The smallest bats in Belize are merely 1.5 inches long and weigh 2-3 grams (0.1 oz).
• The largest bat in Belize is 6 inches with a 24-inch wingspan and weighs 240 grams (8oz).
• Many species of bats share the same roosting areas: caves, cracks in rocks, hollow trees, under bark, under leaves (palms), rolled leaves (banana, heliconia), self-constructed tents, and man-made structures (under roofs).
And for interesting bat videos, check out these from the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education:
Chaa Creek’s Belize Natural History Centre promotes conservation and a better understanding of Belize’s fascinating natural world and cultural history through displays and hands-on education.