Dean of Science Dispels Bat Myths

Dean of Science Dispels Bat Myths
A spotted bat. (Photo by Roger W. Barbour/ Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

Bats are so misunderstood.

Particularly around Halloween, myths proliferate about the mysterious creature. Is it a bloodsucking, flying rodent? Do they attack in hordes at night? Does their blindness cause them to tangle in peoples hair?

“No, no, no,” says bat expert Donald Straney, dean of the Cal Poly Pomona College of Science. “Especially during this time of year, all the myths and misunderstandings come to the fore. Bats are real improbable animals. They're just full of surprises, but they're often not what people think they are.”

Prior to heading the College of Science at Cal Poly Pomona, Straney was a professor of zoology at Michigan State University for 23 years. A specialist in bats and bat evolution, Straney helped sort bat fact from bat fiction.

Q: Do bats survive by sucking blood?

A: There are 45 different types of bats in the United States and over 900 in the world, many with very unusual attributes. Real vampire bats exist, and live off blood, but they don't wear capes and they don't live in Transylvania. They live in Latin America, where they make a small bite on animals such as cows and pigs and then lick up the blood. Many bats simply live off fruits and nectar or insects.

Q: Are bats flying rodents?

A: While bats are furry like mice, they are more closely related to monkeys.

Q: Do bats attack in hordes at night?

A: Absolutely not. Maybe because people see bats as a large flock flying together, they think they swarm, but they don't swarm people and harm them. To bats, we're this big thing that might as well be a tree. They understand food, but to them food is an insect or a fig on a tree, not something that looks like us.

Q: Does a bat's blindness cause them to tangle in people's hair?

A: That's a big one. I hear it all the time. First, they are not blind as a bat, so to speak. Second, they do not tangle in your hair. I've stood in the entrance of caves with millions of bats leaving the cave in a steady stream and I've never been hit. They know you're there and your hair is there, and they would rather avoid you. Bat sonar is very good. In fact, by studying bat sonar, the Navy developed many sonar applications during World War II.

Q: Do bats carry life-threatening diseases?

A: Like many other animals, they can carry diseases. Some carry rabies, which is most often fatal. In the natural populations of bats, a very small percentage has rabies. The important thing to remember is that bats that are out during the day or hanging low on a tree are behaving strangely. There is a high chance that those are sick and rabid. That can be dangerous because when the bats are sick they are within easy reach of children.

Q: Are there any bats in the Greater Los Angeles/San Bernardino area?

A: There are many bats in the area representing 17 species. Some roost in the dried fronds on palm trees, some rest in steep attics and many are in caves and crevices in hills. They come out and drink at night. Oftentimes, especially in the hills, you can see them come down at night and drink in swimming pools. One bat only flies after midnight. The spotted bat (euderma maculatum) has huge pink ears, black fur and three big white spots on its back that make it look like a flying skull. Another bat in the desert walks on the ground and feeds on scorpions. They're really bizarre, and they're right in our backyard.