Surprise lessons show beauty of bats

“Bat man” Dale Smart feeds a bat mealworms while the audience at Wild Birds Unlimited looks on.

“Bat man” Dale Smart feeds a bat mealworms while the audience at Wild Birds Unlimited looks on.

“Is he trying to kill you?” was one question offered by a youngster during a presentation on bats held at Wild Birds Unlimited, 5426 Northland Drive, Grand Rapids. The question came while youngsters and adults were able to admire first-hand a number of bats at a talk on animal adaptation.

Bats are more closely related to humans than rodents “bat man” Dale Smart shared with the audience. Smart came from the Organization for Bat Conservation to enlighten visitors on the beauty, usefulness and necessity of bats in our world.

Putting minds at ease over the actions of his hand-held bat (it was looking for a mealworm treat, a “bat carrot”), Smart talked about animals’ ability to adapt as quickly as environments can change. Successful adapters can survive and even flourish in a changing world, while those who fail to adapt die.

Bats have proven to be resourceful, and Michigan bats are a good example. Today, in the midst of winter, many of our bats have left town to hibernate through winter. Rather than heading south to caves, many have relocated north to man-made mining caves in the upper peninsula. Bats also make good use of old houses in place of standing dead trees, which humans are making less plentiful.

A device makes the sound of a bat's echolocation audible to human ears.

A device makes the sound of a bat's echolocation audible to human ears.

Less successful and thus rarer in our state, loons have not found a way to adapt to less shoreline in Michigan lakes. Because of their legs, they cannot walk on land and require undeveloped waterfront to breed.

On the other side of the equation, some creatures are too adaptable. The Emerald Ash Borer beetle is an example of a successfully adapted visitor to Michigan.

Bats are more than adaptable, Smart shared. Like us, they have hands, wrists and elbows, and fly with a motion that is the equivalent of a human swimmer’s breaststroke. Vampire bats do not eat human blood, he assured, as human blood gives them gas and diarrhea. The anti-clotting quality of vampire bat saliva is actually a benefit for humans, as it is being used to create clot-busting drugs. “The vampire bat is saving human lives,” Smart stated.

“If you were a bat,” Smart said to a small audience member, “you would have to eat 200 pieces of pizza a day.” He pointed out that an adult person would have to eat 700 pieces of pizza a day to support the amount of energy bats require.

Unlike humans, bats cannot walk. Their knees bend the opposite way than human knees do, allowing them to climb, hang upside down, and go to the bathroom suspended by their thumbs. Some bats appear to run, but actually are only hopping on hands and feet. Their leaps can be as long as 30 feet!

Smart pointed out that humans use bat smarts, too. “We invented radar by studying bats in caves,” he said. Bats travel by echolocation, rather than by seeing in the dark. Jamaican bats adapted their echolocation skills to solve the problem of how to emit their echo sounds with a mouth full of fruit. Slits in the nose are their source of sound for echolocation, allowing them to travel with their dinner and still avoid flying into walls or each other.

Smart invited visitors to see the bats he brought and over 100 others live and in person at their home at the Bat Zone in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where staff keep the lights on all night and off during the day to make viewing the bats during business hours possible. For just $30 it is possible to sponsor Radar, the brown bat, who came to the Bat Zone as a hairless rescued baby.

For those unconvinced about the beauty and importance of bats, Smart shared that bats are important in the lives of other living things. Bats are pollinators, like butterflies, making it possible for many plants to reproduce. Bats are the only pollinators of the savaro cactus, the typical growth we associate with western desert scenes. Bats are the major pollinators of avocados, peaches, carob and bananas. Bats are also hard workers. Ninety-seven percent of all seeds spread by animals are spread by bats.

Wild Birds Unlimited periodically hosts nature-related speakers who often bring in live animals as part of their educational presentations. The store has a wide selection of items for nature-lovers and birdwatchers.

For more information on bats, visit www.batconservation.org.

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