Look! Up in the night sky! It's a bird! It's a bloodsucker! No, it is a beneficial friend, the bat!
Bats have been around for about 50 million years and are among the earth's oldest animals: they also are some of the most misunderstood. Because they are nocturnal and strange looking, people have associated bats with evil things for centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, bats play a very important role in the economic and environmental health of the world.
In rain forests and deserts, bats are some of the most important pollinators of plants. Without bat pollinators, the wild varieties of many foods we eat: avocados, bananas, cashews, mangoes and peaches couldn't grow.
Fruit eating bats spread seeds as they fly and digest. As natural insect controls, they can't be beat. One bat can eat up to 600 mosquitoes in one hour!
There are nearly 1000 species of bats worldwide, most of which live in tropical regions, like our very own Flying Foxes at The Oakland Zoo. Forty three species live in the US. In fact, almost a quarter of the world's mammals are bats! Bats are the only mammal that can fly and are in a special order called Chiroptera, which means "Hand wing." Bat wings are actually membranes of skin that stretch between their hands and legs. Bats give birth to helpless young and are breast fed milk by their mothers.
The nine Bay Area counties are a veritable haven for bats. To join the ranks of bat-watchers, head to a favorite outdoor spot at sunset anytime between May and October. Visit Sunol Regional Wilderness, Tilden Regional Park, or Foothills Open Space Preserve. Stroll the campuses at Berkeley or Stanford, or the beach at Bolinas, Pescadero, or Fort Funston. Sit beside one of the lakes in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or find an open spot in downtown Martinez. The shadows you see in flight may be any of 14 species found in the Bay Area--from the ubiquitous little brown, big brown, or Mexican free-tailed bats, to the diminutive western pipistrelles and sparrow-sized hoary bats.
Over the past 150 years, as development has altered the California landscape, bats have faced the loss of roosting sites and the destruction of woodlands and waterways where they feed. Like birds, bats have been devastated by the use of pesticides that kill off their prey, contaminate water sources, and accumulate in their body tissues. Our beneficial friends are in trouble! You can help California bats by putting up bat houses, or joining a conservation group like Bat Conservation International www.batcon.org.
Check out http://flyingfur.typepad.com for more bat blogging.
*Editor's note: This is not to be confused with "Bay Area Bites," KQED's award-winning food and wine blog, which is going strong.
Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at The Oakland Zoo.
latitude: 37.7502, longitude: -122.148