For many people, the mention of flying bats conjures up visions of blood-sucking, big-eyed creatures of the dark that mark the arrival of Count Dracula and his minions of vampires.
For researcher Brock Fenton, however, bats are one of nature’s most fascinating creatures, and he has gone to the bat caves and back to shed light on the myths and misconceptions about these wonderful, winged mammals.
“They are much more complicated and dynamic than we thought,” said Fenton, professor emeritus in Western’s department of biology, who has been researching the behaviour and ecology of bats for more than 50 years.
In a new book he co-authored with the late Jens Rydell, a Swedish scientist and bat photographer who passed away earlier this year, Fenton demystifies bats through research stories and spectacular photographs collected over more than two decades. A Miscellany of Bats, published by Pelagic Publishing, is set to be released in April 2022. (See slideshow below for a sneak peek of some amazing imagery for the book)
The intention of the book, Fenton said, is to make bats more accessible to the average reader. From flight and echolocation to reproduction and conservation, the book is a compilation of facts and figures on everything one would care to know about bats.
“We’re learning that bats are much more complicated than we thought. They do things we didn’t expect,” said Fenton. “Something that isn’t obvious is that they’re very small animals; the smallest ones weigh about two grams, that’s the same as a dime. And the biggest ones weigh about 1,500 grams, that’s three pounds of butter. So they’re really tiny animals, but they live for a long time – over 40 years – in the wild.”
Bats are slow to reproduce, as well. Certain female species typically bear only one pup a year, and perhaps for good reason. A baby bat weighs, on average, 30 per cent of its mother’s weight. “If you think about it for a minute, that’s a lot of baby.”
Another fun fact: bats eat half their body weight in food every day, and lactating females consume the equivalent of their full body weight in a day.
“So if you think of what your favourite food is, and how much you weigh, you can work out how much food they consume,” Fenton said. “It’s this kind of information that makes people realize bats are truly amazing creatures.”
Bats’ mating and reproductive behaviours also make for interesting conversation, with a variety of bat species typically having multiple mating partners. Little brown bats mate in the fall, around September, and then go into hibernation. Female bats store the sperm in their uterus during hibernation, and don’t get pregnant until the next spring – which begs the question: Who’s the father?
“So we have a female little brown bat that mates with five or six males, but only has one pup. How does she pick the correct father?” said Fenton. “It’s even more curious for big brown bats, a common bat around campus. Females have twins. Often, they have two different fathers. So you can see that there’s an interesting mystery there.”
Bats’ bad rap
The very nature of these tiny beasts makes bats difficult to study extensively, contributing to some of the misconceptions about them. They’re nocturnal and live in dark places during the day. “And because they’re so small, it’s hard to find tags small enough to put on their backs that allow you to know something about them,” Fenton explained.
This challenge, and the fact that people tend to fear bats, make conservation efforts challenging. Four of the eight bat species found in Ontario are now listed as endangered: little brown Myotis; tri-coloured bat; eastern small-footed Myotis; and the northern long-eared Myotis.
The global pandemic did not help the case for bats, either.
“The problem bats have is that people are afraid of them. And bats are often associated with disease,” Fenton said. “Of course, COVID-19 doesn’t help that. So it’s important to make people realize there are other sides to the coin.”
Despite some known scientific facts about bats, Fenton said there are still many questions that need answers. Bats have an astonishingly high resistance to virus, which makes them medically interesting to study, said Fenton.
How do bats survive rabies and how do they neutralize it? How does a female teach a pup how to be a bat? How do young bats learn echolocation, where to go to feed or to roost?
These are some of the bat mysteries Fenton still contemplates and hopes to unravel, eventually.