PITTSBURG — There are many common misconceptions about bats, to the point that for a long time they were not taken seriously as a subject of biological study. That is not the case at Pittsburg State University, however, where graduate student Amy Hammesfahr gave a presentation March 28 on bats of Kansas and Missouri.
“Bats are pretty diverse, pretty unique, pretty interesting animals, I think, and there’s a lot of myths associated with them,” Hammesfahr said during her recent presentation at PSU sponsored by the Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society. “Also there’s a tremendous amount of threats that bats face.”
Worldwide, there are more than 1,300 species of bats, living on almost every continent. There are also many mistaken beliefs about them.
“Bats are highly, highly misunderstood,” said Hammesfahr, who has been working with bats since 2014. Some of the myths about bats include that they will get stuck in people’s hair, that they lay eggs, or that they are mice with wings. Bats are actually more closely related to humans than they are to rodents, Hammesfahr said.
Another myth about bats is that all of them suck blood, which is not true. Only three species of bats will consume blood, Hammesfahr said, and they do not actually “suck” blood as commonly believed.
People also often believe that all bats have rabies. Only about six percent of bats tested for rabies are actually found to have the disease, Hammesfahr said. Nonetheless if a bat happens to find its way into your home, she advised to get a post-exposure rabies vaccination just in case, although that is also a good idea when you come into contact with any wild mammal, she said.
Bats are also not blind. They can actually see very well, Hammesfahr said, but they generally use their additional ability of echolocation to navigate the landscape and find food.
Bats can also be very beneficial to humans. Because they eat insects, they reduce the need to use pesticides in agricultural areas, and also reduce populations of insects otherwise harmful to humans such as mosquitos.
Hammesfahr also noted that people who enjoy drinking tequila should be grateful for bats, because agave, the plant the liquor is made from, is pollinated by bats and evolved alongside them.
“To study bats and to identify them, it takes a lot of work,” Hammesfahr said. “It’s very tricky. They all look brown, they all look fuzzy and they’re small. So there’s a lot of things you have to do to identify them.”
Nonetheless, experts have been able to differentiate many species of bats living locally and in nearby areas.
Kansas bat species include the big brown bat, silver-haired bat, hoary bat, eastern red bat, tri-colored bat, evening bat, Townsend's big-eared bat, gray myotis, northern myotis, western small-footed myotis, little brown myotis, and the Brazilian free-tailed bat. The big free-tailed bat may be sometimes present in Missouri as well as in Kansas.
Many of the same bat species found living at times in parts of Kansas can also sometimes be found in Missouri, along with some others including the southeastern myotis, Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, eastern small-footed myotis, and Indiana myotis.
Bats found in Kansas but not in Missouri include the pallid bat, cave myotis, and Yuma myotis.
Some common threats to bats’ survival include deforestation, as well as wind farms, where dead bats are often found, possibly due to their thinking windmills are trees where they can roost.
One of the biggest threats to bats, however, is white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has killed millions of North American bats in recent years since first being identified in New York in 2006. Although white-nose syndrome had not been found in Kansas in the early years after its initial detection in the U.S., it was confirmed to have reached the state in 2018, making Kansas the 32nd state to have been impacted by the disease.
If you find dead bats, you should contact state officials, Hammesfahr said. They could be cases of white-nose syndrome. But there are also ways for people to help local bat species continue to survive.
“There’s some really easy things you can do at your own home to support bat populations,” Hammesfahr said. “You can install a bat house. You can also plant native vegetation to attract insects, which will then attract those bats around and provide a good habitat for them.”
You can also help bats by doing something as simple as becoming informed about the misconceptions about them and helping to spread the word that some commonly held beliefs about bats are not true.