Saturday, March 2, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Fiercely adorable and often misunderstood, bats are nature’s sole true flying mammals. Because they only come out at dusk and are virtually silent, they're easy to miss in our daily life. For the most part, they are small and keep themselves tucked away, and in Nevada, they don’t weigh much more than a handful of pocket change. So why does the thought of them strike fear in so many hearts? Despite their proven ecological value, bats tend to get a bad rap. Some misconceptions about bats are simply because much of their life is so mysterious. Get to know these denizens of the dark.
Bats typically mate in the fall, right before winter hibernation. Females store the sperm in their reproductive tract and use it for fertilization at a later time, typically giving birth to one pup in the spring or summer. They often raise their offspring in nursery colonies. Young cling to their mother for support and can fly a few weeks after birth.
Basic Bat Bio
Bats comprise the entirety of the order Chiroptera, which includes 20 percent of mammals worldwide. It’s the second-largest classification of mammals behind Rodentia (rodents). There are:
• More than 1,200 bat species worldwide
• 45 species reported in the U.S.
• 23 species reported in Nevada
Where to spot them
Bats can be found throughout the world, from rolling grasslands to deep within mountain caves. They’re only absent from polar regions and isolated islands. Nevada’s bats are concentrated mostly in the southern and western portions of the state.
Look to rocky outcroppings, palm trees, forested areas, warehouses, airports and bodies of water during sunset hours to spot these winged wonders swooping after moths. Seventeen species can be found along the Las Vegas Wash and the Colorado, Virgin and Muddy rivers, according to a 2006 bat monitoring study by the Nevada Bat Working Group.
Lake Las Vegas and Red Rock Canyon are home to several year-round and migratory species.
If you’re up for a road trip, head to Reno to see the legendary Brazilian free-tailed bats of the McCarran Boulevard Bridge. From June through September, about 80,000 bats roost in the bridge’s concrete crevices, consuming up to 75 metric tons of insects each summer.
Why do they hang upside down?
It’s more efficient for bats to let go and take flight from the air because they can’t launch their bodies from the ground as birds do. They have specialized tendons in their feet to help them hang.
Bats of the Southwest
Nevada's geography and abandoned mines make for perfect bat habitat. Of the Silver State's 23 species, the smallest is the Western Pipistrelle, pictured above. It weighs up to 6 grams, about the same as a quarter. The largest Nevada bat, the rare Western Mastiff, weighs 65 grams, about three dollars' worth of quarters.
• Pallid Bat (Antrozous pallidus): Instead of feeding by air, it often scoops large prey such as scorpions and centipedes off the ground. It's the lightest-colored bat in Nevada (pale orange-brown to white) and blends in with arid habitats and rocky outcroppings.
• Long-Eared Myotis (Myotis evotis): Found in nearly every county in Nevada, it's named for its jet-black ears and can live up to 22 years.
• Western Pipistrelle Bat (Parastrellus hesperus): One of the smallest bats in the U.S., it has a wingspan of 7-9 inches. It's the slowest and weakest flight of all bats and is active before sunset and just after dawn.
• Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii): One of the longest living (up to 15 years), this bat at birth is already 25 percent of the size of its mother and is considered to be a medium-sized bat. They're found in desert habitats, as well as pinyon-juniper and coniferous/deciduous forests are are known for large, flexible ears.
Depending on the species, bats feed on fruit, insects, blood and other small vertebrates. Those specific to Nevada most commonly feast on mosquitoes, moths, beetles and grasshoppers, but there are a few unique exceptions—the Mexican long-tongued bat eats pollen by sticking its tongue into night-flowering plants.
All bats use echolocation to navigate and find food, and most are nocturnal. Southern Nevada species have their peak activity at dusk, decreasing as the night progresses, and are active May through October.
With fossil records dating back 50 million years, bats are an important part of our ecosystem.
Some play a key role in pollination, while others eat insects harmful to trees, humans and crops, decreasing the need for pesticides.
Bat guano and its associated bacteria can be used as fertilizer, industrial waste detoxifier for lakes and streams, and for producing fuel and antibiotics, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Furthermore, studying bat echolocation has helped scientists develop navigational aids for the blind.
What should I do if a bat gets into my home?
Turn off all the lights and open the doors and windows to let it find its way out. Don’t try to “shoo” it or hit it with an object. This will disorient it further.
Bat populations across the state are plummeting. Several of Nevada’s species are under threat, and up to 50 percent of the nation’s bats are in decline. Low birth numbers, habitat destruction, hibernation interruption, pesticide use and diseases such as white-nose syndrome, have all contributed to the decreased numbers.
Don’t bats carry disease?
The Nevada Department of Wildlife notes that bats are meticulous groomers and are vectors for fewer diseases than ground-dwelling mammals. Despite their reputation, less than half a percent carry rabies.
Contracting any disease from an infected bat is easily avoidable—don’t handle bats. Sick and injured bats are often lethargic and, similar to healthy bats, aren’t aggressive unless provoked. If you find a sick, injured or dead bat, contact the Nevada Department of Wildlife at 702-486-5127.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.