The Halloween season is that time of the year which one particular animal is most associated: Bats. Bats have long been a symbol of the night and have become popular during this season because of myths, legends, and folklore derived from Western culture. Because bats are mammals, yet can fly, this gives them status as liminal beings in many cultural traditions. And to this day bats are still a very misunderstood animal.
Bats are not rodents, but are mammals that are classified in the Order Chiroptera (which translates into “hand wing”) and represent about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide, with about 1,200 bat species. Bats are distributed on every continent except Antarctica. The overwhelming number of species live in tropical regions. 44 species are known from the North American Continent, north of Mexico, with 16 species having been recorded in Kentucky. Roughly 70% of all species are insectivores (insect eaters) and most of the remaining species are frugivores (fruit eaters).
People usually don’t realize that bats benefit humans and perform vital ecological roles such as pollination of flowers, seed dispersal, and consumption of insects that can be destructive to agricultural crops or nuisance pests to people. One of the most common bats of Kentucky (as well as North America) is the Little Brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, and it may eat 600 mosquitos in an hour. Bats utilize a system called echolocation to navigate, avoid predators, and capture prey. Dolphins use this same type of system. When a bat uses echolocation, it emits high frequency sound waves from its mouth and when these sound waves strike an object such as an insect, they bounce off and return to the bat. The bat hears this echo and uses the information accordingly.
Due to the frequent cold winters in Kentucky, many of the bats found here must migrate to warmer regions further south. Other species such as the Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis, and the Gray bat, Myotis grisescens, are cave dwellers in the winter. There are 15 species of bat which can be found over most of the state. Many are common in occurrence, however, three species are listed as Special Concern or Threatened and four species are listed as Endangered. Bat populations have been declining over the past 20 years.
-Story by Matt Lahm, Interpretive Ranger for The Parklands