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15 Astonishing Facts About Bats

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Roughly one in five mammal species is a bat. You may have heard of the famous vampire bats that feed on blood, but some lesser-known species use sonar to catch fish, scurry across the ground like mice, build their own tents, and even stick to sheer walls with suction cups. Let’s get face-to-face with some of the most bizarre bats in the world.

1. SOME BATS STICK TO VERTICAL WALLS.

If you want to attach something to a smooth vertical surface—a car window, maybe, or a slippery shower wall—you might use a suction cup. Disk-winged bats use them, too. They have special cups on their ankles and wrists that help them stick to smooth tropical leaves. This gives them a high, safe place to rest in the bustling tropical forest. Sucker-footed bats, meanwhile, hang on using wet adhesion—they ooze a liquid that helps them cling to a surface.

2. SOME CAN CATCH FISH.

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When bats hunt insects at night, they find their prey with an amazing sonar-like ability called echolocation—they make sounds that bounce off objects, then listen to the echoes for clues about what’s ahead. But the greater bulldog bat, which is named for its dog-like face, uses this sonar to catch fish. Flying above the water, it senses telltale ripples caused by the underwater movements of its prey. It skims the surface with its large feet and swiftly snatches a slippery meal. Here’s a video of this remarkable bat in action.

3. ONE SPECIES WEIGHS LESS THAN A PENNY.

Kitti’s hog-nosed bat is the world’s smallest bat—and, in fact, it’s in the running for the world’s smallest mammal. This animal is just a little over an inch (33 millimeters) long and weighs less than a penny. It’s also pretty unique: its ancestors split off from other bats a whopping 43 million years ago. Kitti’s hog-nosed bat is native to Burma and Thailand, where it’s vulnerable to habitat destruction.

4. SOME CONSTRUCT TENTS.

If you take a backwoods survival class, you’ll learn to build a shelter out of the natural material around you. And if you’re like most beginners, your first few shelters might fall down or let in too much rain. Shelter-building is a hard skill to master—but some bats have got it down. They gnaw the veins of a large tropical leaf, making it fold into a tent that protects them from rainfall and predators. One of these tent-making species is the Honduran white bat. As an added bonus, a group of these animals snuggling under their tent looks like a pile of marshmallows.

5. SOME CRAWL AROUND ON THE GROUND.

When a New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat is hungry, it hits the ground. It folds its wings up tight and uses them as forelegs as it scurries, mouse-like, across the forest floor in search of a snack. This bat’s diet is very diverse—it’ll eat nectar, pollen, berries, insects, and more. Here’s a video of lesser short-tailed bats searching for a meal.

6. THEY COME IN AMAZING PATTERNS.

A painted woolly bat. Image credit: Reeder D et al via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Bats aren’t just brown. The painted woolly bat of Southeast Asia is orange and black like a jack-o'-lantern. Indonesia’s stripe-faced fruit bat is also ready for Halloween with some spooky makeup. Then there’s the stunning pied bat; an inhabitant of central and western Africa, it has striking white blotches that make it look like a badger or a panda. These are just a few of the world’s many, many beautifully patterned bats.

7. THIS ONE BAT HAS FANTASTIC HAIR.

Native to sub-Saharan Africa, Chapin’s free-tailed bat has a wicked hairstyle. Females sport a small tuft of fur that sticks up, but males have much larger crests [PDF] that play a role in their courtship, and also just look cool.

8. SOME BATS SING LOVE SONGS.

Move over, nightingales. The males of several bat species woo their mates with tunes that are every bit as complex as those of songbirds. For instance, to construct a proper song, a Brazilian free-tailed bat needs to follow certain rules and patterns, but like a great improvisational musician, he also adds his own special style that marks him as unique.

How do bats learn these complicated songs? They pick them up from their parents. The greater sac-winged bat of Central and South America hones its singing skills as a baby. Like human kids, young sac-winged bats babble as they try to copy their dads’ sounds.

9. THIS BAT HAS A HORSE’S HEAD.

Bats have some truly bizarre faces, but one of the all-time weirdest belongs to the male hammer-headed fruit bat of equatorial Africa. Females of this species have a relatively ordinary foxlike head. But males have heads that are almost three times as large as a female’s. Their faces look even weirder from the front. Why that giant face and protruding lips? They help this bat make a unique honking call.

10. SOME BATS EAT SCORPIONS.

Adesert long-eared bat. Image credit: Charlotte Roemer via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

The desert long-eared bat chows down on scorpions—and doesn’t mind being stung in the face as it pounces on its prey. Native to parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, this bat catches scorpions by attacking their heads. The scorpions vigorously defend themselves by stinging the bat on its face and body. Unperturbed, the bat dispatches its meals and carries them back to a roost. There, it gulps down every bit of a scorpion—even the stinger.

The desert long-eared bat isn’t fussy about which scorpion species it hunts. It’ll even chow down on the deathstalker, one of the few scorpions in the world whose sting is potentially deadly to humans.

11. SOME BATS POLLINATE FLOWERS.

Bees are famous for pollinating crops, and they help us grow such familiar foods as apples, pumpkins, and macadamia nuts. But bats are pollinators, too. Those huge Saguaro cacti of the U.S. southwest, for example, bloom in the evening to attract pollinating bats. And the agaves that give us tequila are also bat-pollinated; they make stinky flowers on tall stalks that open at night. Wild bananas rely on bats, too.

12. ONE BAT HAS A TONGUE THAT’S LONGER THAN ITS BODY.

The tube-lipped nectar bat’s tongue is a whopping 1.5 times the length of its body. This bat uses its monstrous tongue to reach tasty nectar that’s deep inside long-tubed flowers. When the tongue’s not in use, it’s stored in the bat’s chest, next to its heart.

13. SOME BATS ARE HUGE.

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Certain fruit-eating bats have a wingspan of over five feet. One of the largest is the golden-capped fruit bat of the Philippines. Named for its shock of blond “hair,” it can weigh more than two and a half pounds. It roosts in large numbers and dines on fruit such as figs. Deforestation and hunting, however, have put serious pressure on this batty behemoth.

14. MOTHS CAN JAM A BAT’S SONAR.

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Many insect-eating bats use echolocation to hunt down their flying prey. But some moths fight back. They rub their genitals together to make sounds that interfere with a bat’s sonar. Confused, the hungry bats zero in on the wrong location and bite at empty air.

This acoustic warfare isn’t just limited to bats vs. moths. Researchers have found that Mexican free-tailed bats seem to jam each other’s signals when they’re competing for prey.

15. THIS BAT’S FACE DOESN’T EVEN LOOK LIKE A FACE.

We’ve established that bats have weird faces. Some bats have yellow tube-shaped nostrils. Some look like their faces collapsed inward. Some are mostly made of ears. But let’s end this list with one of the most extraordinary-looking species. Bourret's horseshoe bat, which lives in Southeast Asia, has a face that suggests an origami project gone wrong. Why the long nose? It’s perfectly shaped to help focus the bat’s sonar.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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