Bats are one of my favorite mammals. I find them to be simply delightful. They’re one of the most diverse groups of mammals on earth, with over 20% of all mammal species being bats. Depending on the species, you can really see their evolutionary relationship to other mammals. Some bats have faces that look almost identical to deer or foxes. Plus their babies are adorable.
Bats belong to the order Chiroptera which is further divided into Megachiroptera and Microchiroptera. Megachiroptera are the large fruit eating bats found in the Old World. They don’t live in North America. Microchiroptera are probably the more familiar bats, the small ones that people murder without hesitation because they wanted a warm place to sleep. Chiroptera literally means “hand-wing”. This name comes from the fact that they literally fly with their hands. The bones running through their wings are essentially the same bones present in our fingers. I like to point this out because this becomes a fascinating piece of evidence that all live is descended from a common ancestor. If you look at the image below, you can see the similarity in forelimb structure betweens bats, humans, and birds. We could also include horse legs, whale flippers, and dog legs and see the same thing. This diverse group of critters have the same bones in roughly the same location!
At some point in the past, there is a common ancestor that all these organisms descended from. Over time as their different lineages split off on the branch of life, mutations occurred in the genes that coded for the development of these forelimbs. So long as the mutations were beneficial (or at least neutral) in their effect, they could be passed down. Eventually these forelimbs kept getting altered until we arrived with the different forms we see today. Evolution does a great job of slowly jury-rigging existing systems over time for novel uses. Bats and birds both use their forelimbs for flight, but the structure of their wings is completely different. Isn’t that neat?
If you live around trees and step outside around dusk, chances are you can see them swooping around saving you from insect pests. In terms of pest control, bats provide anywhere from $3 – 50 billion in services! That’s not even looking at their worth as pollinators. They’re the hero we need but not the one we deserve. Why don’t we deserve them? Bats are dying at an alarming rate thanks to the white-nose syndrome (WNS). And most people don’t know/don’t care/think bats are flying rodents. They’re not. They’re not rodents at all. While we’re talking about misinformation, bats are not common carriers of rabies. According to the CDC, its likely that less than 6% of all bats carry it. However, if you should wake up in the morning and find a bat flying around your room absolutely go get a rabies vaccine. Rabies is essentially incurable.
This syndrome is caused by a fungus that was likely brought over to North America. It loves living in caves and finds the bat to be a perfect host. Except the bats can’t stand the fungus – its loud and rude and wakes them up early from hibernation. When they wake up early, they find that most of their food sources are gone because its winter time! So they starve. The fungus also degrades their tissues which affects their ability to fly. Imagine having someone come live with you who likes to slowly drill holes into your bones until your legs and arms don’t work anymore. WNS currently has a morbidity rate somewhere between 90-100%. The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is one of the most common bats in North America and will likely become extinct if we cannot halt or slow down the spread of WNS. We need a Batman for bats! Some dark knight to crusade for the knights of darkness.