Bats are more than superheroes or vampires

When people think of bats, there’s plenty of fictionalized ideas that come to mind. From Batman the superhero detective to Dracula the spooky blood-sucking vampire, the small flying mammal conjures up many emotions.

October brings the Halloween holiday and, along with the annual regional Bat Fest at the Lubee Bat Conservancy last Saturday, this is the month where bats are part of the seasonal ensemble.

But there’s a lot more to the little furry winged creatures. From myths to facts, many people don’t really know what’s true when it comes to the mysterious nocturnal animal.

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Dr. Shelly Johnson with a Hoary Bat

“Especially around Halloween, people always think of vampires, and they think of vampire bats,” said Dr. Shelly Johnson with the UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. “There are over 1,400 species of bats in the world and there is one that is actually a vampire bat that does feed off of mammals, however humans are not their prey and they also do not live in the United States.”

The vampire bat lives in tropical South America and feeds on cows or chickens, she said. Their bodies are only about 2 inches tall with a wingspan between 8 to 12 inches.

“This is not a big animal,” Johnson said. “So in the night, they’ll kind of sneak up on the ground to a sleeping cow or chicken and just put a little tiny slit in their ankle, lap up as much blood as fills their tiny little belly, which is only a few minutes, and then leave.”

Johnson started working with bats when she was a wildlife rehabber in Texas after finishing her bachelor’s degree. Then she lived in Arizona and worked as a technician while earning her master’s degree, where she identified bat population and habitat use. She then traveled to Wyoming as a biologist doing bat surveys before coming to Florida.

“There’s several myths that I always like to mention that are not accurate,” she said. “One is in regards to rabies concerns. Bats are very good at harboring viruses and disease, however rabies are actually very low in natural populations.”

Johnson said that less than one percent of the population actually carries rabies because those that do acquire the disease get sick and die. And the only way you can contract rabies is if the bat actually bites you.

“So the occurrence of that happening is extremely low,” she said.

Another myth is that bats will get tangled in your hair.

“It’s totally untrue,” she said. “Bats are actually very agile fliers, and if they’re circling around your head, it’s probably because there’s insects that they’re trying to eat.”

In Florida, there are 13 native bat species found year around, with eight in the North Central Florida area. The bats in our region are insectivorous and eat mosquitoes, moths, and beetles and are agricultural and forest pest species.

“They’re doing us a huge service by not only eating the mosquitoes, which bother us as individual humans, but they are getting rid of pest species, which are saving billions of dollars across the United States that has been documented based on how many mosquitoes and things they actually eat,” Johnson said.

The UF bat houses are popular places to visit and the bats come out for about 10 to 15 minutes after sunset, depending on the cool weather, Johnson said.

The most frequent questions Johnson receives are people having issues with bats in their house or building and also building bat houses.

“If you have a single bat that ends up inside a building, he is probably just trapped in there and wants to get out,” Johnson said. “Generally, if you see a bat in your house and no one has come in contact with it, just open up the doors and windows and wait for them to fly out. But if you have lots of bats, like in your attic, then you can do what’s called an exclusion.”

Two four-chamber bat houses mounted back-to-back on a pole and covered with a metal roof

An exclusion is when bats can be removed from homes only between Aug. 15 and April 15. During the other half of the year, bats cannot be moved due to the mothers having their pups and the baby pups cannot fly. After removal, the home or building owner needs to seal off all places in the attic space where a bat can fit through, which is usually up to as small as a half-inch crack.

As for building your own bat house to help provide habitat, Johnson provided a link for information and said anyone with basic carpentry skills can assemble one easily.

Click on the following UF-IFAS links for more bat information:

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