Cave Bats

Bats, like humans, are mammals. They have hair and give birth to living young, feeding them on milk from mammary glands. Bats can live as long as 30 years, and most have only one baby, called a pup, each year.

Bats are the only mammals that can fly. The bones in a bat’s wing are the same as those of the human arm and hand, but the bat’s fingers are elongated and connected by a double membrane of skin, which forms the wing.

There are more than 900 bat species worldwide. Most bats, including those common in North America, feed on insect pests such as mosquitoes, moths and beetles. They are nocturnal, flying and foraging for their food at night. One bat can eat as many as 1,000 insects in just one hour.

Bats in other parts of the world, mainly tropical areas, feed on fruit, and some kinds of bats feed on nectar. Fruit bats and nectar-eating bats are extremely important ecologically as seed dispersers and pollinators. Many plant species depend almost entirely on bats for pollination.

Bats use a mechanism called echolocation to find food and avoid flying into obstacles. They are able to emit and hear noises too high for the human ear to distinguish. The sound waves bounce off objects and back to the bat‘s keen ears, enabling it to locate, identify and capture moving prey in the dark. Each bat has its own, individual “voice” with which it can judge the size and distance of an object as fine as a human hair. A bat’s sense of hearing is so sensitive, it can hear the footsteps of a walking insect.

Some species of bats live in trees, on cliff faces, or in rock crevices, but the vast majority of bats live in caves. Caves are ideal shelters for bats, providing safety from predators. As they hang from the ceilings, bats are out of reach of most of their enemies. Some of the most successful species of bats live in large cave colonies that number in the millions!

White-Nose Syndrome

Named for a cold-loving, white fungus that shows up on the faces and wings of infected bats, white-nose syndrome causes bats to awaken too early from hibernation, depleting the stored fat reserves they need to get through the winter. These bats often emerge in midwinter to search for food. As a result, they freeze or starve to death. White-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million bats since it was discovered in 2006. At least five species of bats, including the Indiana brown bat, are at risk of suffering great losses in population.

White-nose syndrome is transferred through bat-to-bat contact, but there is some evidence that it also can be carried on the shoes and clothing of people who visit caves where the fungus is present. Because of this, Indiana has closed all its state-owned caves in an attempt to control the spread of the disease. It is important to note that humans are not affected by the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome.

Most privately owned caves, such as Squire Boone Caverns, have guided tours that limit the public’s access to many areas within the cave. Our tours do not endanger the bats in our cave.

Ways You Can Help

If you are worried about our bat friends and want to help, we ask you to be mindful of how you treat the environment. If you have recently visited another cave system in the area, don’t wear the same clothes and shoes when touring Squire Boone Caverns unless they have been cleaned. Also, take care to wipe off purses or other items you may have carried with you.

If you would like to help monetarily, an organization called Bat Conservation International is partnering with many agencies and individuals to understand and stop white-nose syndrome and begin restoring decimated bat populations. You can make a contribution online at www.batcon.org.

(Squire Boone Caverns is not associated with and does not benefit financially from donations made to BCI, but we commend their efforts to save bats around the world. You may choose to support other organizations that do similar work to save these important animals.)

Indiana Brown Bat

This Indiana brown bat (Myotis sodalis) is one of our favorite residents inside Squire Boone Caverns.

Bat Myths

Bats Are Just Flying Mice

Bats are not flying mice; they are not even remotely related to rodents. Bats are such unique animals that scientists have placed them in a group all their own, called Chiroptera, which means "hand-wing." Bats are grouped with primates and lemurs in a grand order called Archonta.

Bats Are Blind

Most bats can see as well as humans. Many bats have eyesight that is adapted to low-light conditions, much like cats.

Bats Get Tangled In People’s Hair

Their built-in sonar allows bats to accurately fly with great speed through total darkness, avoiding objects larger than themselves, including humans. If a bat swoops toward you, it’s probably after a mosquito hovering just above you.

Bats Carry Rabies

Bats do not “carry” the rabies virus, though they can contract the disease just like any other mammal. Less than one-half of one percent of all bats are infected with rabies, however, and rabid bats are seldom aggressive.

Death as a result of contact with a bat is extremely rare. That doesn’t mean it’s safe to touch or try to hold bats, as they might become frightened and bite in self-defense. Grounded bats are more likely to be sick, and should be approached only by professionals trained to handle them.

Bats Suck Your Blood

Undoubtedly, the most famous bats are vampire bats, which are found in Latin American countries. These small bats feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals such as birds, horses and cattle, but they do not attack humans and they do not suck blood.

They obtain their meal by making a small incision in the skin of an animal with their razor-sharp teeth, then lapping up the blood that flows from the wound. The bat’s saliva contains a substance that actually helps numb the animal’s skin, so it’s likely the cut is hardly felt at all. Because vampire bats need only about two tablespoons of blood per day, the loss of blood to a prey animal is minimal.

Bats Are Ugly and Dirty

Most bats have very cute faces, and some even resemble deer, rabbits, and little Chihuahuas. Like cats, bats spend an enorm-
ous amount of time grooming their fur, keeping it soft and silky.