During October, bats are often shrouded in superstition, but these nocturnal creatures are anything but scary.
Although commonly misunderstood, bats play an essential part in Florida’s agricultural industry and provide a free pest-removal service for the Gainesville area. As part of National Bat Appreciation Month, they are being recognized for just that.
A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2011 stated that the value of bats to U.S. agriculture ranges from $3.7 billion to $53 billion a year.
Each bat can eat thousands of insects in a given night—and that includes the pesky mosquito, said Cynthia Marks, founder of the Florida Bat Conservancy.
Although the majority of bats eat insects, some found outside Florida like to feast on fruit, she said. Fruit-eating bats are one of the first animals to fly over a rain forest area when it is cleared out. The seeds they drop turn into pioneer plants, which regrow and regenerate the area.
“For the most part, the fruit-eating bats have a really vital role because of that seed dispersal,” Marks said.
Bats are responsible for seeds that help with 90 percent of forest regeneration, said Brian Pope, director of the Lubee Bat Conservancy in Gainesville.
Many agricultural products like bananas, cashews and mangos are dependent on bats to pollinate for seed dispersal.
Bats are the No. 1 consumer of pests at night, which eliminates the need for pesticides, he said.
“The main point is that these are beneficial animals that are intrinsic to our ecosystem,” Pope said.
About a dozen species call Florida home because of its tropical climate. One of those species, the Florida bonneted bat, is found nowhere else in the world and is a critically endangered species, he said.
“We think about endangered species in Asia and Africa, but we have one of the most critically endangered mammals in the entire world,” Pope said.
Apart from fruit and insect-eating bats, a third feasts on blood: the vampire bat.
There are three species of vampire bats, and none live in Florida, he said. They don’t have large fangs and are widely misunderstood animals.
“Unfortunately, there has been a lot of myths and bad press associated with them, but these animals are actually being used in medical research to help heart attack and stroke victims,” Pope said.
A special anti-coagulant called Draculin is found in a vampire bat’s saliva. Medical researchers synthesize it and use its power to help remove blockages to increase blood flow in victims of heart attacks and strokes.
“It’s a shame that you have three species [of vampire bats], and they kind of give a bad rep to the other 1,300 species that are around,” he said.
Pope said misconceptions about bats are simply due to the fact that people don’t know a lot about them.
Mark Hostetler, a professor with the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida, said bats don’t usually bother people.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, bats will fly in my hair,'” he said. “Echolocation makes them well equipped to avoid you by using sound to sense the environment.”
Florida’s bat culture is especially relevant in the Gainesville area, as UF boasts one of the largest bat houses in North America, with thousands of bats in residency, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s website.
Hostetler said people should build more bat houses to accommodate their vast population and lack of suitable residencies.
Such was the case when UF built the original bat house in 1991 to relocate them from several stadiums and buildings around the school’s campus, where their presence had become a problem, according to the website.
Although he encourages people to help the bat population, Hostetler said that like any other wild animal, people shouldn’t touch or tend to an injured bat.