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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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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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