Story and image rights courtesy of Bat Conservation International (BCI)
Encountering bats in the wild is a thrilling experience. The scent of guano, the sound of wings or the vision of bats pouring out of their roost each night can trigger a flood of excitement.
Discovering a tree full of flying foxes and taking in the bulk of the furry bodies dangling above you may spark an appreciation for how bats are the only mammals that use flight to overcome gravity.
The dark flutter of a frog-eating bat swooping down to pluck a calling frog from a jungle pond may surprise you into stillness as you listen to the conspicuous silence that follows.
Learning about bats
Watch Bracken Cave bats from home
Witnessing moments like these requires travel and some lucky timing. Traveling to bat viewing sites or finding a local bat event can offer an opportunity to seek out in-person bat encounters, but there are many ways to experience bats, including digital exploration or taking a closer look at the environment where you live.
The visually stunning “batnado” at Bracken Cave Preserve in the Texas Hill Country is worth a trip to the Lone Star State. However, in 2023, this immersive, in-person experience was made available to anyone with internet access; a 24-hour live stream video of the Bracken cave entrance is made possible by a collaboration between BCI and Explore.org.
It may not transmit the scent of guano, but the live stream video will capture several elements of a real-life encounter, going beyond what appears in a prerecorded clip — the anticipation of waiting for the moment bats emerge, the night-to-night differences in animal behavior and seasonal changes in their activity.
In summer, tune in before sundown to witness the drama of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats dodging owls and hawks, trying not to fall within reach of the predatory snakes and disappearing into the Texas Hill Country sunset.
Best of all, you can enjoy this spectacle from the comfort of your home, out of the intensive Texas heat. In the winter, most of these bats have migrated south, so you won’t see a grand batnado, but you may get lucky enough to see an armadillo or a porcupine wander by.
Are bats blind?
Have you ever wondered how bats see the world? They have all the same senses as humans. They can smell, feel, taste, see (they’re NOT blind) and hear. Additionally, 70% of bats echolocate, producing sounds that bounce off objects that then echo back information to them.
Bats create these specialized sounds to sense the world around them and to find food and avoid flying into the objects. The bat can instantly determine the distance, size and texture of the objects around them. Each species has its own unique echolocation calls that are specialized to where they live and what they do.
Curious if a bat hunting for insects in a forest sounds different from one zooming over the treetops? With specialized bat detectors, we can record their special sounds. But since most of these calls are above the range of human hearing, we must slow down the recordings and lower the frequency so we can hear what they’re saying.
Listening to these bat echolocation calls gives us a glimmer of how they use their ears to “see” in the dark.
What do bats eat?
Exploring what bats eat is one of the best ways to appreciate their diversity.
Some species eat any insect they can fit into their mouth, while others are very specialized to only feed on the nectar of a couple of specific plants.
A few of the most specialized bats are at the top of the food chain, including carnivorous species that only feed on fish or frogs.
Online, you can virtually travel to Mexico and watch a bat gracefully hovering in front of a flower and dipping its tongue for a sip of sweet nectar. Journey farther down your path as you investigate the parallels between nectar bats and hummingbirds or the surprising amount of pollen that can adhere to their fur.
Do bats suck blood?
Centuries of storytelling and decades of hokey horror films have linked bats to monstrous blood-sucking vampires, which has caused widespread unfounded fear of these misunderstood animals.
In reality, of over 1,460 species of bats worldwide, only three feed on blood. The real vampires find sleeping birds or livestock, make a tiny cut and lap a small amount of blood without disturbing the animal.
We need bats
Fear of the unknown and misunderstandings about bats can lead some people to persecute them and prevent others from recognizing the substantial contributions they make to our planet.
Bats are crucial to healthy ecosystems, providing vital services, such as pest control, pollination and seed dispersal. The Mexican free-tailed bats at Bracken Cave eat more than 147 tons of insects each evening throughout the summer, saving the agricultural industry countless dollars that would otherwise be spent on pesticides or crop destruction.
Hundreds of economically important plants and even more plants required for a healthy environment depend on bats. Bat pollination of pitaya (a cactus fruit) at plantations in Mexico increases fruit production by an amount that translates to 40% of farmers’ incomes.
Bats need us
As more people understand, celebrate and love bats, they quickly learn the need to protect these vital creatures is urgent. Globally, bats face multiple threats including habitat loss, climate change; invasive species, such as a fungus that causes white-nose syndrome; collision fatalities at wind farms and unregulated hunting.
The collective impact of such threats has led North American experts to determine 52% of bats in North America are at risk of serious population decline in the next 15 years as reported in the 2023 State of the Bats Report.
Unfortunately, sufficient data are not yet available to assess the status of many bat species in other parts of the world, so a detailed extinction risk for all bats is difficult to describe with precision. But many scientists agree these under-studied bats are threatened.
How to help bats
- Continue with your “choose-your-own” bat adventure today! Look for virtual or in-person bat experiences, then spread the word and share the experience with others. With this action, you’ll spark conversations, questions, understanding and support for bats.
- Serve and discuss a bat-themed fruit salad at breakfast, made from plants that benefit from bat pollination or seed dispersal, such as mango, banana, guava and figs. Put the fruit salad in a blender to make a smoothie as you describe to your friends and family how you were captivated by the swirling Bracken Cave batnado and are planning a trip to see it in person next summer.
- Check your rice packaging to see where your rice is grown, and pair your rice meal with the story of how natural pest control by one insect-eating bat species in Thailand preserves over 26,000 servings of rice each year.
As a bat advocate and ambassador helping to spread an understanding of bats, you’ll inevitably fall in love with them (if you haven’t already!), while contributing to protecting both bats and the people who need them.
You can learn more about bats and experience the incredible “batnado” by watching the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild episode, “The Bats of Texas.” Watch a clip of the episode and get the full free streaming link here.