Ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) depicted vampires shapeshifting into bats, the flying mammals haven’t been able to shake their creepy reputation and association with Halloween. But do humans need to be afraid of them?
Definitely not, says Professor Patrick Bohlen, who serves as director of the UCF Arboretum.
UCF is home to thousands of bats, who for years have taken up residence in a storm drain near the UCF Arboretum’s green house.
“A lot of the habitats these bats would reside in are being greatly reduced, and they like to roost over water and to be in caves, so that’s why they are attracted to this open pipe,” Bohlen says. “We like to celebrate them, especially around Halloween. It’s a way of just supporting some of the native species that would exist in this area in our urban infrastructure.”
As a tribute to our friend the bat, Bohlen shares some interesting facts and dispels some myths about these furry, flying creatures.
Bats are primarily insect eaters in this part of the world. Some of those insects are pests, so people have calculated there’s a value to that in terms of the insects they eat. We don’t normally think of other animals eating bats, but actually during the breeding season, barred owls, which are night predators, feed a lot on bats. So bats can actually serve a rope higher up in the food chain as well.
I think bats get a bad rap just because they’re associated with horror films. They come out at night so they’re nocturnal. They’re a little creepy because they’re the only mammal that flies. They have funny little faces. I think they just kind of have a scariness about them for a lot of people that stems from lack of knowledge. They’re really not very scary animals. There are three species of bats in South America that feed on blood, so I think that creates a Count Dracula association. But I think they have a bad reputation mostly because they’re associated with the darkness and they’re just kind of very unusual creatures that look funny.
Some bats, including some of the bats we have in Florida, have adapted so that they can survive extremely high ammonia levels. There are some caves that have bats in them where the ammonia level would knock a person out. But the bats have a way of dealing with ammonia by regulating the CO2 in their blood to neutralizes the excess ammonia. They can tolerate that high ammonia that’s produced from their waste, the guano that falls to the floor of the roost.
It’s not really fully understood why. They are social animals for the most part, so that plays a factor. It could also be in cold climates they benefit from thermoregulation to stay warmer.
In Florida we have 13 species of bat. I think we have possibly two or three species in the storm drain on campus, but I think the main one is called the Southeastern myotis, known by its scientific name as Myotis austroriparius. The fact that that species name has “riparius” in it means they are water-loving bats. They tend to roost in wet areas. Historically, they would have roosted in trees and bottomland, forests, swamps. So the storm water pipes are perfect for them because they like high humidity.
I had a student once who lowered a GoPro camera into the manhole we knew they lived in and took all of these photos. We then laid the photos out flat on a big single two-dimensional map and counted the bats. And there were 5,000 in that one manhole. There could be more, but there were 5,000 in that one roost.
People don’t need to be afraid of bats. They’re relatively harmless. If you see a bat on the ground in the daytime, I would stay away from it. They can carry rabies, so I certainly wouldn’t want to handle a bat that was in a situation like that. There are bat conservancy groups you could call if you find a bat on the ground. But for the most part bats are out at night, flying around and eating insects.
I think the best single place to go to learn about bats in Florida would be the Florida Bat Conservancy. Their website is floridabats.org.