Real bats are superheroes too Smithsonian voices


From pollination to mighty droppings, these much-maligned animals give us much to be grateful for.
Ameya Khandekar

Batman returns to theaters this week for the latest installment in his battle against evil. But for those of us outside of Gotham City, the real heroes are the animals he’s named after.

“There are entire ecosystems that depend on bats,” he said Ingrid RöchonMuseum Technician in the Mammals Department at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “They come in so many different and beautiful varieties,” each with a role in their habitat.

While bat populations plummet in the face of dangers like the devastating disease known as White Nose Syndrome, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are losing vital members of the world’s ecosystems. Here are five reasons why bats deserve superhero status, even if they don’t have their own theme song.

They are pest control professionals

Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne may be a billionaire, but real bats could give him competition, Rochon said. researcher have appreciated that bats provide billions of dollars worth of pest control services to the agricultural industry in the United States alone.

That’s because they devour insects like it’s nobody’s business. Take the little brown bat, one of North America’s most common species. “They can eat up to half their body weight on insects every night,” Rochon said. “And a single colony of large brown bats, numbering about 150, can eat over a million insects in a year.”

Since Many of these insects are agricultural pestsLike herbivorous beetles and moths, bats protect crops Corn to grapes and pecans. They are also making a name for themselves well beyond farmland by defending themselves against urban pests such as termites and mosquitoes. They’re such efficient predators, noisy a studythat the decline in bat populations due to white-nose syndrome is likely resulting in hundreds of tons of uneaten insects each year.


The white-nose syndrome fungal infection is believed to have killed millions of bats in North America. The disease, here in a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), spreads among bats, but humans can also carry it between caves on clothing or equipment.

Marvin Moriarty, US Fish and Wildlife Service

They help plants to reproduce

While most species of bats eat insects, others prefer nectar or fruit. Dashing from plant to plant, covering their blurry faces in pollen or swallowing—and then expelling—seeds, they move on Ingredients for new plants far and wide.

This makes them important pollinators, just like bees and butterflies. “Especially in places where there aren’t many insects, like deserts or mountain tops, bats pollinate the plants there,” says Rochon. “And they travel farther than insects, so they spread pollen a greater distance.”

As a matter of fact, more than 500 flowering plant species rely on bat pollination for reproduction. These include a number of species that are economically and culturally important to humans, such as the agave and the towering saguaro cactus.


Many plants depend on bats as their main pollinators. Here, a Mexican long-tongued bat feeds on the nectar of an agave plant, which is used to make tequila.

US Fish and Wildlife Service

They encourage invention

Given the aerial acrobatics of bats and their talent for nighttime navigation, researchers have long thought these animals could teach us a thing or two. They are superstars for engineers working on them biomimicry — the development of nature-inspired solutions to human problems.

Bats attract much of this admiration because they are incredibly skilled fliers. Thanks to the complexity of their wings, they can fly around obstacles with remarkable speed and even soar land upside down. That is Charmed scientistas it could provide a model for more effective flight in man-made machines.

Bats are also experts on echolocation. They emit high-pitched sound pulses that bounce off objects around them and return to their ears. Depending on how these sounds are reflected back to them, bats can take control of their surroundings – allowing them to fly through the air even in total darkness. They’re so good at it that researchers are taking inspiration from bats self-driving cars, Low light navigation systems and Tools for people with visual disabilities impairments.

You get cave communities

Dark, damp and isolated, caves may not seem like the most hospitable places. And while they don’t typically host as much life as other habitats, they do host a surprising number of species species communities – thanks in large part to the bats.

“They get nutrients from outside the burrow and bring them into an otherwise barren environment,” Rochon said. “Without the bats, there would be no life in the cave.” Bats emerge from the caves, devour their dinner, and return to their roosts, where they defecate packed with important nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. This waste feeds microbes and insects, which in turn feed larger cave dwellers like salamanders.

In short, Rochon said, “There are entire cave ecosystems built on foundations of bat mounds.”


Many species of bats congregate in burrows and hang upside down in confined spaces. Their nutrient-rich waste serves as the basis for cave food webs.

US Geological Survey

Your drop is revealing

Bat pile – or officially guano – has a lot to offer for humans, too. For one, the fact that it’s chock-full of nutrients makes it one highly effective fertilizer. Research also shows that guano could serve an entirely different purpose: helping us reconstruct Earth’s past.

To understand what the planet’s climate was like long before humans kept reliable records—or before they were even around to keep them—scientists turn to archives in nature, known as proxies. Tree rings, ice cores, and the fossils of deep-sea organisms can all tell us something about their environment at the time of their formation. They’re time capsules that document things like temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric chemistry from the distant past.

As it turns out, bat guano could be something of a gold mine in this regard (if not others). researcher have educated the composition of bat droppings in caves that have accumulated over millennia to get an idea of ​​what temperature and precipitation were like while those bats were doing their thing. In other words, a bat’s junk is a climate scientist’s treasure.

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