Celebrating Bat Conservation: From Chiroptophobia to Coexistence

Though the groundhog may forecast the end of winter, nature has a bounty of more subtle signs that indicate the arrival of spring. Crocuses, hyacinths and snowdrops are the first to burst from the thawing ground. Soft, sweet-smelling magnolias flutter in the breeze and electric-yellow forsythia hums with the beating wings of bees. Longer days make for warmer nights and April showers bring a lot more than May flowers…

Mayflies and mosquitos enter a breeding frenzy. Thick, buzzing clouds billow in the humid air and drown out the moonlight sonata of the spring peepers. Suddenly, your sunset stroll along the water’s edge turns into the jitterbug as you swing, squirm and flail to out-maneuver the tiny bloodsuckers. Fortunately, your thirst for vengeance is shared by another. Emerging from the shadows like a dark knight, the winged creature sweeps and swirls across the sky. The speedy spectral leaves only a trail of chirps before disappearing once more into the forest. Was it a bird? A pterosaur? A drone? 

Your guesses aren’t too far-fetched. Like birds, they possess a wing membrane (patagium), and like toothed whales, they echolocate. They belong to the order Chiroptera. Commonly known as the bat, this evolutionary enigma is the only mammal capable of true flight. Other bat powers include eating 1,000 to 4,000 pesky insects a night, pollinating fruits and flowers, dispersing seeds and growing the local economy through ecotourism.

International Bat Appreciation Day

Despite all the ecosystem services they perform, bats are among the most controversial, misunderstood and undervalued animals. According to the IUCN Red List, 29 bat species are critically endangered, 89 are endangered and 121 are considered vulnerable. Centuries of demonization coupled with sensationalized media coverage of bats as reservoirs of viruses, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, feed public fears. This irrational fear of bats as disease vectors, pests or evil spirits—known as chiroptophobia—represents a significant barrier to bat conservation globally.

This spring, as bats wake from hibernation and migrate home, look to your allies in the skies and join us in celebrating International Bat Appreciation Day (April 17), created to spread awareness and give bats the recognition they deserve.

Illustration zoologique / Desmodus rotundus / Chauve-souris Vampire

Zoological illustration of a vampire bat

Sinister Superstitions

Sociocultural representations of animals as “good” or “evil” have persisted for several millennia and influence attitudes that determine the success of conservation efforts. When an animal is labeled “evil,” like the wolf, it is deemed less worthy of protection. In contrast, species perceived as “good” may become vulnerable to over-harvesting, such as pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal.

European attitudes toward bats have been recorded as early as the 14th century. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri described the devil Lucifer as bearing large bat wings. In 1332, French noblewoman Lady Jacaume of Bayonne was publicly burned as a witch because “crowds of bats” were seen visiting her garden. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Tempest equated bats with witches, spells and curses.

The big-eared woolly bat or (Peter's) woolly false vampire bat (

The big-eared woolly bat or woolly false vampire bat

In other parts of the world, communities concocted their own scary stories. In northern Thailand, a bat active in the daytime or the sight of bats flying around a temple foretells a person’s death. The Huaulu peoples of Maluku Indonesia associate bats with people who have died a violent death, and the Batak of Sumatra regard flying foxes as the embodiment of malevolent spirits. In Pakistan, people believe that bats roosting near one’s home brings misfortune. In Sri Lanka, it was believed that if someone denies another person from drinking water, they would be reincarnated as a bat as punishment.

Two black flying-foxes Pteropus alecto hanging in a tree, Kakadu National Park, Northern territory, Australia

A pair of black flying foxes (Pteropus alecto) sleeping in Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia

In New Zealand, Māori associate bats—pekapeka—with the mythical nocturnal bird hokioi that heralds death and disaster. Bats are New Zealand’s only native land mammals, making them an especially important focus for conservation efforts. There are two species of bats in New Zealand: the critically threatened long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus) and the endangered lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata).

Debunking Vampire Bat Myths

In Japanese mythology, very old bats can transform into nobusuma, spirit animals resembling flying squirrels that land on their victims’ faces at night to feed off blood. The Ilocano people living near caves throughout the Philippines associate bats with the fearsome aswang and manananggal demon spirits, which prey on human livers and pregnant women. The former is a female human with bat-like wings, able to detach its upper torso and fly; the latter can assume bat form when hunting.

Decapitating bat demons appear in various myths throughout the Amazon, where ritual human and animal sacrifices, often by decapitation, were common in many cultures of the ancient New World. Also popular are tales of supernatural bats that burn their victims or are themselves destroyed by fire. These could have been born out of observations of natural fires in caves, which sometimes occur from the spontaneous combustion of bat guano.

In northern Guyana, some locals fear they will be whisked away in the night by giant bats and eaten alive at Tamaruo Dukuo, or “Bat Mountain.” One bat that may have inspired these tales is Vampyrum spectrum, or the spectral bat. The largest species in the Western Hemisphere, its wings can stretch more than three feet. Vampyrum spectrum is also known as the great false vampire bat because it doesn’t slurp blood like its vampire cousin, Desmodus rotundus; it eats flesh.

Spectral Bat (Vampyrum spectrum) Caught Mist Netting in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.

Spectral bat (Vampyrum spectrum) caught mist netting in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

In Latin America, the spectral bat is known as the “Jaguar on the Wing.” Their behavior has been likened to that of a jaguar because both mammals are apex predators that administer the killing bite at the top of the head or the back of the neck. According to a recent study, Vampyrum is just one of nine bat species that qualify as carnivores. These species—which also include the woolly false vampire bat (Chrotopterus auritus) and the frog-eating bat (Trachops cirrhosus)—play a vital role in their ecosystems, helping to control prey populations.

From Sierra Leone comes an account of “Boman,” a shape-shifting creature believed to suck the blood of sleeping children. The hammer-headed fruit bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) was branded the villain. As the largest bat in Africa, with wingspans up to 38 inches, this bat undoubtedly struck fear into the mothers of infants. Fortunately, as the common name applies, hammer-headed bats are frugivorous (meaning they subsist primarily on fruit), with a special affinity for figs.

Among the Ibibio people of southern Nigeria and the Nilotic people of Sudan, bats are associated with witchcraft, as the practice is usually performed at night when bats are at their most active. If a bat flies into the home and touches a person, they are doomed to have their heart eaten when the bat returns while they sleep. The yellow-winged bat Lavia frons—one of five species of false vampire bat (family Megadermatidae) from Africa—was considered especially ominous because it was often spotted roosting in daylight. However, unlike other false vampire bats, which may feed on small vertebrates, the yellow-winged bat feeds exclusively on insects.

The colony of Common vampire bats, Desmodus rotundus in the cav

Colony of common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus)

Blood-drinking bats were an obscurity in Europe prior to the 16th-century exploits of Spanish conquistadors in the New World. Explorers who voyaged with Columbus returned from Trinidad with the first written accounts of bats that fed on blood. In 1565, Hernán Cortés’ company returned from Mexico with reports of people being bitten in the night. In 1796, Dutch-born John Gabriel Stedman wrote of being bitten by a vampire in Guyana, describing it as “a bat of monstrous size, that sucks the blood from men and cattle when they are fast asleep, even sometimes till they die.”

Charles Darwin became the first scientist to record a vampire bat sighting, but taxonomic descriptions of all three vampire species would not be completed for another 70 years. Early naturalists’ observations of tropical bat species could have sparked vampire hysteria across Europe.

In 1847, British authors James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest published Varney the Vampire as a penny dreadful novel, introducing some of the most recognizable tropes of vampire fiction. The 1896 French silent film The House of the Devil is recognized as the first vampire film, predating 1931’s Dracula, which featured Bela Lugosi transforming into various animals, including a bat.

The exaggerated reports from conquistadors emboldened the public to imagine colonies of bloodsucking leviathans. In reality, of the 1,400+ species of bats in the world, only three are vampire bats, and all are considered microbats, measuring just a few centimeters in length. Native to Central and South America, the true vampires are the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) and the white-winged (Diaemus youngi) vampire bat.

he Brazilian bat, hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata) is one of three species of vampire bats. It mainly feeds on the blood of wild birds, but can also feed both on domestic bird

Hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), Brazil

Numerous additional fossil vampires exist, including Desmodus archaeodaptes from the Upper Pliocene of Florida (known as the oldest reported vampire species) and De. Draculae from Venezuela, Belize and Brazil. De. Draculae—sometimes referred to as a ‘giant vampire’—was roughly 25% larger than the modern common vampire and likely fed on giant ground sloths.

Prior to the spread of European colonists and the introduction of domestic livestock, vampire bats fed on capybaras, tapirs, peccaries, deer and birds. Though their diet sometimes comprises sea lions, seabirds, fruit bats and reptiles, vampires now largely prey on cattle, horses, donkeys, chickens and pigs, making them a “nuisance species” in many regions.

Vampire bats don’t actually suck the blood from their prey; they make a small incision with their front teeth (incisors) and lap the blood from the wound while special proteins in their saliva prevent the wound from clotting. Incredibly, this potent anticoagulant has been used in the development of medication to help prevent strokes in humans.

Bat Lore and Love

In contrast to the negative narratives surrounding bats, there are a number of cultures that share an emotional affinity with these unique mammals. For example, bats are revered throughout India. In Madurai, Tamil Nadu, worshippers of the god Muni regard Pteropus giganteus as sacred and protect colonies for fear of divine punishment. Additionally, a bat temple in Assam, at the entrance of a mixed-species bat cave, has hosted festivals since 2001.

The Sarawakian Ibans people of Malaysian Borneo believe that a bat flying into the house indicates a shaman (manang) bringing good vibes (chelap) and protection. Samoan legend tells of how the Tongan king’s Samoan wife, Leutogi, was rescued by flying foxes, and she later honored her rescuers by naming her son Tonumaipe’a, meaning “rescued by flying foxes.” Some communities in Vanuatu even consider Pteropus tonganus to be their ancestor and are said to be able to communicate with them.

Recently, a team of ethnobiologists conducted a literature review of the value of bats across East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Oceanian traditions. They discovered Asia-Pacific cultures have greater respect for bats than most Western societies. These findings demonstrate that for conservation to be successful, we must uplift and revitalize positive sociocultural representations of bats.

Orange nectar bat, Lonchophylla robusta, flying bat in dark night. Nocturnal animal in flight with white orchid flower. Wildlife action scene from tropic nature, Costa Rica

Orange nectar bat (Lonchophylla robusta) in Costa Rica

After all, bats provide a myriad of ecosystem services as indicator species, pollinators, seed dispersers and pest controllers. Insectivorous bats save the agricultural industry between $3.7–53 billion each year in the U.S. alone. More than 530 species of flowering plants rely on bats as either their major or exclusive pollinators. Some of these plants include the culturally significant durian fruit and balsa trees, which produce the world’s lightest timber and agave, which assists the multimillion-dollar tequila industry.

Mexican long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris nivalis)—which range from the southern parts of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona—are essential in pollinating valuable commercial crops like figs, dates, mangoes and peaches, which have flowers that only open at night.

Some states where large populations of bats live are working to ensure they always have a place to call home after a nighttime feeding. To educate local communities, organizations such as Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and Bat Conservation International have created guides to assist in the construction of bat houses and bat-friendly gardens.

All About Bats: Free Nat Hab & WWF Webinars

In celebration of International Bat Week, Natural Habitat Adventures and our travel partner, World Wildlife Fund, hosted a series of myth-busting webinars. Check out Part 1: Fascinating Bat Biology with wildlife biologist Scott Gibson as he spreads awareness about the threats facing bats, like rain forest destruction and the fatal fungal disease, white-nose syndrome.

Then, pour yourself a drink for Part 2: Salud to the Bats! Raise a glass with Expedition Leader Melissa Silva as she delves into the lifecycle of agave and how bats are critical to Mexico’s environment and economy.

You may even learn about the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), the world’s fastest bat and the fastest mammal! While the cheetah can run up to 75 mph, the free-tailed bat has been recorded flying in short bursts at speeds up to 100 mph. Bracken Cave, located near San Antonio, Texas, is a summer maternity colony for up to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats—making it the world’s largest bat colony. In 1992, Bat Conservation International purchased the land where Bracken Cave is located to protect it from the increasing threat of urbanization.

See Bats Soar Aboard Nat Hab’s Amazon River Cruise

The tropics have the greatest diversity of bats. In fact, bats are the most abundant mammals in the rain forest, making up over 50% of mammal species. Their abundance accounts for the colorful stories that originate from the Amazon and strongly influence how Indigenous communities interact with resident wildlife.

Dwarf epauletted fruit bat (Micropteropus pussilus) flying at night

Dwarf epauletted fruit bat (Micropteropus pussilus)

Bat iconography is particularly prominent on the north coast of Peru, where the Moche peoples glorify the relationship between bats and native plant species. Mochica pottery often depicts bats with sweetsop (Annona squamosa), a delectable fruit with seeds that are dispersed by bats. Some of their ceramic vessels also illustrate an anthropomorphized supernatural bat holding a knife in one hand and a human head in the other.

Nat Hab’s Great Amazon River Expedition connects travelers with a handful of native bat species in the Peruvian Amazon. Some of the bats you may encounter are the fishing bat, the sharp-nosed bat and the tent-making bat. Journey to the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, a 5-million-acre wildlife sanctuary on the eastern flank of the Andes, where tributaries converge to birth the mighty Amazon River. Hear from WWF researchers about what is at stake and how you can be part of a force for conservation change.

Amazon river cruise boat travel let’s camera bird watching binoculars

© Megan Koelemay

The post Celebrating Bat Conservation: From Chiroptophobia to Coexistence first appeared on Good Nature Travel Blog.

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