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How bats help the world and why we should help them

Explore the intricate world of bats and see why we all have to be advocates for increased conservation efforts to protect these underrated flying mammals

By Sophie Titman

The UK countryside teems with wildlife all day, including birds, fish, and insects; but this hustle and bustle does not stop when night falls. Just as we are settling down in bed, a whole new set of animals come out to play. Bats are just one of these nocturnal creatures; often the one with the worst reputation. Actually, bats play an important role in the ecosystem, and need our help.

Bats are pollinators

Over 500 plant species rely on bats to pollinate their flowers, including mango, vanilla, banana and cocoa (that’s right, bats can be thanked for chocolate bars!). Whereas bees are attracted to bright flowers, bats favour pale nocturnal flowers that are often large and bell-shaped. Several species of bat have evolved extremely long tongues, specifically to reach nectar at the bottoms of flowers. Some bats’ tongues are even longer than their body!

Not only do plants rely on bats, but bats also rely on plants; many species have evolved to feed on only one or two specific plants. For example, the lesser long-nosed bat pollinates agave plants in Mexico. As a consequence of farmers harvesting agave plants before they flower, the plants have evolved to reproduce asexually, meaning lower genetic diversity, as well as a reduced food source for the bats.

Bats are pest controllers

All 18 species of bat in the UK are insectivores, often using their echolocation to catch flying insects in the air. This means bats are great for keeping bugs away from crop fields, or other areas surrounding their roost. In a single night, one bat can eat up to 3000 bugs. Unfortunately, there are several agricultural practises that disrupt this. The use of pesticides can result in lack of prey and bats going hungry. Destruction of woodlands and hedgerows also affects bats, which use these for roosting and hunting.

Bats are seed dispersers

Like birds, bats play important roles in the spreading of seeds from trees and plants. Some tropical fruit bats carry seeds inside them after eating the fruit, and then excrete the seeds far away from the original location. This can be especially important for helping regrowth of forests after clearance, or after forest fires. Tentmaker bats in Central and South America play a vital role in dispersing large seeds, from up to 44–65 plant species, throughout forests; this is of particular importance when large animals such as deer or macaws, which would usually aid dispersion of these seeds, have been lost.

Bats are indicators of biodiversity

Bats account for almost a third of all mammal species in the UK and live in a wide range of habitats. There are eight species of bat that are official indicator species. Bats face several pressures, including landscape changes, development, harmful agricultural practices and habitat fragmentation. As they are so sensitive to changes in the environment, they are great indicators of the wider biodiversity for the rest of the wildlife in an area.

Bats need our help

Humans have caused the extinction of several bat species over time; the most recent in 2009. All bats are legally protected in the UK because of their rapid decline in recent years. The public can help in several ways: by putting up bat houses, putting out food and water, reducing use of pesticides, and avoiding disturbing bats, especially during their winter hibernation. Bats have been helping the global ecosystem for hundreds of years, and now it is our turn to help them. Each small step can make a difference!

From Issue 17

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