Mythconception - are bats really blind?

31 October 2017

For our Halloween special, Georgia Mills got her teeth into the old phrase “blind as a bat”...

Georgia - As it’s Halloween, bats are finally getting their moment in the spotlight. But, it’s not like they can see it being “blind as a bat.” Well, no… bats just aren’t blind. Every single species of bad can see to at least some degree, and some of the larger ones have better eyesight that we do. Plus, all of them can enhance their sight with something called echo location where they bounce sound off objects to work out where they are. So, next time someone says you're “blind as a bat,” you can thank them for the kind compliment.

That myth didn’t take too long to bust so I’m going to spend the rest of this segment looking at another myth about these small furry fiends. Because bats have a bit of an image problem - bats are considered diseased, evil, and ugly. Even batman is scared of them. But, do they really deserve their bad name. Let’s look at disease first…

Bats are supposedly riddled with rabies and, while they do carry the disease, according to research in the USA only about 1% of them actually have it. And, in the UK, we’ve only ever found 14 infected bats in the last 30 years. Plus, most species of bats are really uninterested in biting humans; they’ll only really do it if they’re picked up or startled, but it’s true that bats are implicated in some of the most terrifying diseases including Ebola.

They’re social animals and they move around a lot so diseases do move about with them, however, it’s not all the bats fault. As humans spread across the world we’re entering their territories more and more which does increase the chances of contacting them. So, they’re a little bit diseased but not as much as you might think.

Are they evil? Well, mostly they’re gentle and timid. The most villainous bats of history are probably the ones used in a bat bomb and it wasn’t really their choice. In world War II there was this idea to drop a bomb full of bats, each with their own bomb on timer. The bats would flee from the larger bomb, roost in houses and then, unfortunately for the bats, explode -  eeeh. Which would set of hundreds of fires simultaneously in a huge area. Although about 2 million dollars and probably a bats were sunk into the idea… it never saw combat.

Some species of bat are actually very altruistic. If a bat notices it’s neighbour hasn’t had it’s nightly meal it will very kindly vomit some of it’s own dinner into their mouth. I bet your neighbours wouldn’t do the same for you. And they provide us with hugely important services - bats do pest control for free. Chomping ups some of our most irritating insects saving farmers billions. Plus, they like mosquitos which are themselves a transmitter of malaria. Fruit bats poop seeds far and wide, which is key to keeping our rainforest healthy, and many species are pollinators just like birds and bees so are vital to maintaining the food chain.

And finally… bats just aren’t ugly. Depending on what they like to eat they’ve got very different shaped faces, but they’re all good looking in their own way. If you still think they look a bit scary, look up a photo of the Honduran white bat. These look pretty much exactly like a piece of cotton wool with a pig face, and they built tents out of leaves and snuggle inside together - hardly the stuff of nightmares.

Whilst bats themselves aren’t the stuff of nightmares, they’re facing their own at the moment. Human activity and a disease called white nose fungus is wiping out huge numbers of them which, in turn, can damage our ecosystems and our food security. So bats need our support… not our fear.

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