Hike & Seek Question: What Are Bats?

In September and October, NWF’s Hike & Seek™  program will be offered in select cities nationwide, teaching children of all ages about wildlife and the outdoors. “What Are Bats?” is a pre-Hike & Seek kickoff for kids eager to add to their wildlife expertise.

Bats Are Mammals

Bats grow hair and feed infant young with mother’s milk, two defining characteristics of mammals. Biologists put bats in the scientific order Chiroptera (from Greek meaning “hand wing”), in the same way that carnivores like bears, wolves, lions and tigers are put in the order Carnivora.

Bats Are Biologically Old Creatures

In the fossil record, bats date back at least 52 million years—tens of millions of years before apes and humans appear.

Bats Are the Only Flying Mammals

Other mammal species glide, but only bats are capable of powered flight. Their wings are composed of the elongated fingers of the forelimbs with a thin webbing of furred skin stretching between the fingers. Because these wings are thinner than those of feathery birds, bats are capable of more rapid and precise turns than are birds.

big-eared bat, NWF, national wildlife federation, nwf, hike & seek, bats
The long ears on this big-eared, or long-eared, bat help the animal to listen to its sonar signals bouncing off its surroundings. Bats can modify the shape of the ears and reduce the amount of sound going into them to keep loud sonar signals–which humans can’t even hear–from deafening them. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bats Are Very Successful

In biology, a successful order is one that produces a lot of species, showing that it is highly adaptable to many environments. The chiropterans have produced nearly 1,250 living species, meaning that about 20 percent of the world’s roughly 5,700 living mammal species are bats. (Of the various orders of mammal, only one beats bats in species numbers, and that is the order Rodentia—rodents—at roughly 2,277 species, including mice, rats, chipmunks, hamsters and beavers).

Bats Are Slow Breeders

Females usually produce only one offspring at a time, probably because pregnant bats must fly to find food and can handle only so much onboard cargo. Mothers feed newborns with milk and bring food to older young, which cannot fend for themselves until they are able to fly—a development that may take six weeks to four months, depending on the species. Animals that breed slowly usually live a relatively long time, allowing them to produce sufficient young to maintain the species, and bats are no exception. Individuals of some bat species can live 20 years.

Bats Are Insect Eaters

True, many bats hunt on the wing for insect prey, eating thousands of small insects each night. Many of the small bats native to the United States follow this diet. But some bat species eat fruit, some small animals such as frogs, and some even eat fish.

Bats Are Echolocators

Bats that hunt flying insects may use a form of sonar or echolocation—while flying, they emit sounds that bounce off nearby objects. The echo helps the bat locate what lies ahead, including such prey as moths and mosquitoes. Some bats eat insects on the ground, but they also use highly developed hearing to locate their prey.

Bats Are Not Creatures that Get Tangled in People’s Hair

Certainly not. Their use of echolocation is so precise that

they can fly in complete darkness through a room crisscrossed with stretched lengths of string, compared to which a human is like the broad side of a barn.

Bats Are Little Animals

Yes, in many cases they are. In fact, one of the smallest mammals in the world is the bumblebee bat (also called Kitti’s hog-nosed bat), with a body less than an inch and a half long and weighing around 0.07 ounces. Found in Thailand and Burma, it feeds on insects.

Bats Are Large Animals

Pretty large, sometimes. Fruit bats, a.k.a. flying foxes, of Australia and parts of Asia and Africa can reach a wingspan of nearly 5 feet and weigh 2.5 pounds. Relying on a keen sense of smell and good eyesight to find the fruit on which they feed, they may fly 40 miles in search of a fruiting tree.

Outdoor Fun for You and Your Kids at Hike & Seek

In September and October, join NWF’s Hike & Seek™ in select cities nationwide for a 1- to 2-mile nature hike and scavenger hunt, during which you can learn more about bats at the Mammals Station on the trail, see a barn owl or other raptor up close, make a bug box and find many more activities for children of all ages, especially toddlers to age 10.

Batty Activities for a Pre-hike Kickoff

• Join thousands of other Americans who are turning backyards into Certified Wildlife Habitat

• Most bats are nocturnal. What should you do if you see one in the daytime?

• A Kid Quiz on bats

• Building a bat house.