Bats are mammals that belong to the order chiroptera (from the greek cheir—“hand” and pteron—“wing”), an adaptation that distinguishes them as the only mammal capable of true flight. Bats share some features with birds and even pterosaurs (the extinct flying reptile), such as fused cranial bones for additional lightness and a raised bone on the sternum, called a keel, to which the large flight muscles attach. However, features like the wing membrane, or patagium, which is supported by the arm and by four highly elongated fingers, and the ability to echolocate, like toothed whales, make bats an evolutionary enigma.
Tracing bat lineage is particularly challenging because their slender skeletons do not preserve well. Sparse fossil records indicate that bats first appeared in the Eocene, some 55 million years ago; however, a recent paper suggests that bats arose an epoch sooner, during the Paleocene. A team based at the University of Kansas and China discovered two fossil teeth belonging to two separate specimens of the bat, dubbed Altaynycteris aurora, in the Junggar Basin of northwest China. The ancient remains bolster a theory that bats could have emerged from Asia, then distributed themselves across the globe when they later developed the mechanism for flight.
Today, there are more than 1,400 species of bats worldwide—that’s almost 20 percent of all mammal species! According to the IUCN Red List, 29 bat species are critically endangered, 89 are endangered and 121 species are considered vulnerable. Scientists have recognized nearly 250 additional bat species that are “Data Deficient,” meaning that both the number of mature individuals, and the population trend, is unknown. Much of their behavior remains a mystery, feeding the black hole that is bat history. The cryptic nature of these creatures has led a diversity of cultures to stipulate the origins of bats through a slew of stories, many mythic in proportion.
Sociocultural representations of animals as “good” or “evil” have persisted for several millennia and influence attitudes that determine the success of conservation efforts. This is particularly evident when an animal is labeled “evil,” deeming them less worthy of protection. Similarly, species that are deemed “good” may become vulnerable to over-harvesting, such as in the case of pangolins, which are poached and consumed in the name of traditional medicine and social status.
The phenomenon of chiroptophobia—an irrational fear of bats, which encompasses negative perceptions of bats as disease vectors, pests, or evil spirits—represents a significant barrier to bat conservation globally. Centuries of predominantly Western demonization—coupled with sensationalized media coverage of bats as reservoirs of viruses, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic—have made bats a controversial, misunderstood and undervalued species.
Western cultural associations of bats with devils and witchcraft have been recorded in Christian tradition as early as the fourteenth century. Tertullian, an early Christian author from Carthage, claimed that the Devil and his angels had wings, and around 1314, Dante wrote that the Devil’s wings had no feathers, “but was in form and texture like a bat’s.” In 1332, a French noblewoman, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne, “was publicly burned to death as a witch because ‘crowds of bats’ were seen about her house and garden.” In the 1600s, William Shakespeare equated bats with witches, spells and curses. In Macbeth, there is the incantation of the three witches: “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog,” and in The Tempest, there is Caliban’s curse on Prospero: “All the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles and bats, light on you.”
One of the most enduring old wives’ tales from Europe is that bats will get tangled in women’s hair and have to be cut out with a pair of scissors. In 1958, a zoologist and former President of the Mammal Society by the name of Gathorne-Hardy, Fifth Earl of Cranbrook, decided to challenge this superstition. Using two volunteers—a woman with short curly hair and a woman with long wavy hair in a bun—Cranbrook placed four different species of bats on their heads: a noctule bat (Nyctalus noctula)—the largest bat in the UK; a long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus); a Natters bat (Myotis nattereriand); and a Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii). In all four cases, the bats crawled around the volunteers’ hair without becoming entangled and then eventually flew away without any issues.
In other parts of the world, communities concocted their own scary stories. In north and northeastern Thailand, a bat active in the daytime or the sight of bats flying around a temple, foretells a person’s death. The Huaulu peoples of Maluku Indonesia associate bats with people who have died a violent death and the Batak of Sumatra regard flying foxes as the embodiment of malevolent spirits. In Pakistan, people believe that bats roosting near one’s home bring misfortune. In Sri Lanka, it was believed that if someone denies another person from drinking water, they would be reincarnated as a bat as punishment.
In New Zealand, Māori associate bats—pekapeka—with the mythical nocturnal bird hokioi that heralds death and disaster. Bats are New Zealand’s only native land mammals, making them an especially important focus for conservation efforts. There are two species of bats in New Zealand; the criticality-threatened long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus) and the endangered lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata).
Debunking Vampire Bat Myths
In Japanese mythology, very old bats can transform into nobusuma, spirit animals resembling flying squirrels that land on their victims’ faces at night to feed off blood. The Ilocano peoples living near caves throughout the Philippines, associate bats with the fearsome aswang and manananggal demon spirits, which prey on human livers and pregnant women. The former is a female human with bat-like wings, able to detach its upper torso and fly; the latter can assume bat form when hunting.
Decapitating bat demons appear in various myths throughout the Amazon, where ritual human and animal sacrifice, often by decapitation, was common in many cultures of the ancient New World. Also popular, are tales of supernatural bats that burn their victims or are themselves destroyed by fire. These could have been born out of observations of natural fires in caves, which sometimes occur from the spontaneous combustion of bat guano. In northern Guyana, Tamaruo Dukuo, or “Bat Mountain,” looms in the distance as a stark reminder of villagers who had been whisked away in the night by giant bats and eaten alive. One bat, who may have been the inspiration for these tales, is—Vampyrum spectrum, more commonly known as the spectral bat—the largest bat in the Western Hemisphere, with wings that can stretch more than three feet. Vampyrum spectrum is also known as the great false vampire bat because it doesn’t slurp blood like its vampire cousin, Desmodus rotundus; it eats flesh. Another common title is Latin America’s “jaguar on the wing.” Their behavior has been likened to that of a jaguar because both mammals are apex predators that administer the killing bite at the top of the head or the back of the neck. According to a recent study, Vampyrum is just one of nine bat species that qualify as carnivores. These species—which include the woolly false vampire bat (Chrotopterus auritus) and the frog-eating bat (Trachops cirrhosus), play a vital role in their ecosystems helping to control prey populations.
In Malawi in 2017, bat superstitions caused a violent uproar when a mob hunted individuals suspected of vampirism. The United Nations withdrew its personnel from the riot-affected areas as a result. From Sierra Leone, comes an account of “Boman,” a shape-shifting creature believed to suck the blood of sleeping children. The hammer-headed fruit bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) was branded the villain. As the largest bat in Africa, with wingspans up to 38 inches, this bat undoubtedly struck fear into the mothers of infants. Fortunately, as the common name applies, hammer-headed bats are frugivorous, with a special affinity for figs.
Among the Ibibio peoples of southern Nigeria and the Nilotic peoples of Sudan, bats are associated with witchcraft, as the practice is usually performed at night. If a bat flies into the home and touches a person, they are doomed to have their heart eaten when the bat returns while they sleep. The yellow-winged bat Lavia frons—one of five species of false vampire bat (family Megadermatidae) from Africa—was especially ominous because it was often spotted roosting in daylight. However, unlike other false vampire bats, which may feed on small vertebrates, the yellow-winged bat feeds exclusively on insects.
Blood-drinking bats were an obscurity in Europe prior to the 16th-century exploits of Spanish conquistadors in the New World. Explorers who voyaged with Columbus returned from Trinidad with the first written accounts of bats that fed on blood. In 1565, Hernán Cortés’ company returned from Mexico with reports of people being bitten in the night. In 1796, Dutch-born John Gabriel Stedman wrote of being bitten by a vampire in Guyana, describing it as “a bat of monstrous size, that sucks the blood from men and cattle when they are fast asleep, even sometimes till they die.” Charles Darwin became the first scientist to see a vampire bat, but it would not be for another 70 years that taxonomic descriptions of all three vampire species would be completed. On day 7 of 164 aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin journaled about the strange encounter:
“The Vampire bat is often the cause of much trouble, by biting the horses on their withers. The injury is generally not so much owing to the loss of blood, as to the inflammation which the pressure of the saddle afterwards produces. The whole circumstance has lately been doubted in England; I was therefore fortunate in being present when one (Desmodus d’orbignyi, Wat.) was actually caught on a horse’s back. We were bivouacking late one evening near Coquimbo, in Chile, when my servant, noticing that one of the horses was very restive, went to see what was the matter, and fancying he could distinguish something, suddenly put his hand on the beast’s withers, and secured the vampire. In the morning the spot where the bite had been inflicted was easily distinguished from being slightly swollen and bloody. The third day afterwards we rode the horse, without any ill effects.”
The observations of early naturalists encountering tropical bat species very well could have sparked vampire hysteria across Europe. In 1847, Varney the Vampire was published as a penny dreadful novel by British authors James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. The story introduced some of the most recognizable tropes of vampire fiction still used today, including the depiction of fangs and the use of a Gothic setting. “Le Manoir du Diable” or “The House of the Devil,” is an 1896 French silent film directed by Georges Méliès. The film depicts a human transforming into a bat, a plot element that has led some observers to label the work the first vampire film. Méliès’ film predates Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which was published the following year.
The exaggerated reports from conquistadors emboldened the public to imagine colonies of bloodsucking leviathans. In reality, of the 1,400+ species of bats in the world, only three are vampire bats, and all are considered microbats, measuring just a few centimeters in length. Native to Central and South America, the true vampires are the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) and the white-winged (Diaemus youngi) vampire bat.
There are numerous additional fossil vampires, which include Desmodus archaeodaptes from the Upper Pliocene of Florida (known as the oldest reported vampire species) and De. draculae from Venezuela, Belize and Brazil. De. Draculae—sometimes referred to as a ‘giant vampire’—was roughly 25 percent larger than the modern common vampire and likely fed on giant ground sloths.
Prior to the spread of European colonists and the introduction of domestic livestock, vampire bats fed on capybaras, tapirs, peccaries, deer and birds. Though their diet sometimes comprises sea lions, seabirds, fruit bats and reptiles, vampires now largely prey on cattle, horses, donkeys, chickens and pigs; and as such, are considered to be nuisance species in many regions. Vampire bats don’t actually suck the blood from their prey; they make a small incision with their front teeth (incisors) and lap the blood from the wound while special proteins in their saliva prevent the wound from clotting. Incredibly, this potent anticoagulant has been used in the development of medication to help prevent strokes in humans.
Bat Lore and Love
In contrast to the negative narratives surrounding bats, there are a number of cultures that share an emotional affinity with these unique mammals. For example, bats are revered throughout India. In Madurai, Tamil Nadu, worshippers of the god Muni regard Pteropus giganteus as sacred and protect colonies for fear of divine punishment. Additionally, a bat temple in Assam, at the entrance of a mixed-species bat cave, has hosted festivals since 2001. In Malaysia, ethnic Han Chinese believe that a bat entering one’s house is a good omen. Similarly, the Sarawakian Ibans peoples of Malaysian Borneo believe that a bat flying into the house indicates a shaman (manang) bringing good vibes (chelap) and protection. Samoan legend tells of how the Tongan king’s Samoan wife, Leutogi, was rescued by flying foxes and she later honored her rescuers by naming her son Tonumaipe’a, meaning “rescued by flying foxes.” Some communities in Vanuatu even consider Pteropus tonganus to be their ancestor and are said to be able to communicate with them.
A team of ethnobiologists conducted a review of publications in the English-language literature documenting the cultural value of bats in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania traditions. Of the 60 different cultures in 24 countries assessed, 62 percent had only positive values, 8 percent had neutral values and 10 percent had negative values. The results suggest that Asia-Pacific cultures contain more positive associations with bats than most Western societies and, as such, offer promising opportunities to promote human-bat coexistence. For conservation to be successful, we must uplift and revitalize positive sociocultural representations of bats.
After all, bats provide a myriad of ecosystem services as indicator species, pollinators, seed dispersers and pest controllers (insectivorous bats save the agricultural industry between $3.7-53 billion each year in the US alone). There are more than 530 species of flowering plants that rely on bats as either their major or exclusive pollinators. Some of these plants include the culturally significant durian fruit (Durio zibethinus); avocado; agave, which are harvested to supply the multimillion-dollar tequila industry; bananas; and balsa trees, which produce the world’s lightest timber. Mexican long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris nivalis)—which range from the southern parts of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona—are essential in pollinating valuable commercial crops like figs, dates, mangoes and peaches, which have flowers that only open at night.
Some states where large populations of bats live are working to ensure bats always have a place to call home after a nighttime feeding. To educate local communities, organizations such as Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and Bat Conservation International, created guides to assist in the construction of bat houses and bat-friendly gardens.
Join Nat Hab & WWF for Bat Week!
In celebration of International Bat Week (October 24-31), Natural Habitat Adventures and our travel partner, World Wildlife Fund, hosted a series of myth-busting Webinars. Check out Part 1: Fascinating Bat Biology with wildlife biologist Scott Gibson as he spreads awareness about the threats facing bats, like rain forest destruction and the fatal fungal disease, white-nose syndrome.
Then, pour yourself a drink for Part 2: Salud to the Bats! Raise a glass with Expedition Leader Melissa Silva as she delves into the lifecycle of agave and how bats are critical to Mexico’s environment and economy.
You may even learn about the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis); the world’s fastest bat and the fastest mammal! While the cheetah sprints at speeds up to 75 mph, the free-tailed bat has been recorded flying in short bursts at speeds up to 100 mph. Bracken Cave, located near San Antonio, Texas, is a summer maternity colony for up to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats—making it the world’s largest bat colony. In 1992, Bat Conservation International purchased the land where Bracken Cave is located to protect it from the increasing threat of urbanization.
See Bats Soar Aboard the Amazon River Cruise
The tropics have the greatest diversity of bats. In fact, the most abundant mammals in the rain forest are bats, making up over 50 percent of mammal species. The abundance of bats accounts for the colorful stories that originate from the Amazon and strongly influence how Indigenous communities interact with resident wildlife. Bat iconography is particularly prominent on the north coast of Peru, where the Moche peoples glorify the relationship of bats and native plant species. Mochica pottery often depicts bats with sweetsop (Annona squamosa), a delectable fruit with seeds that are dispersed by bats. Some of their ceramic vessels also illustrate an anthropomorphized supernatural bat, holding a knife in one hand and a human head in the other.
Nat Hab’s Great Amazon River Expedition connects travelers with a handful of native bat species in the Peruvian Amazon. Some of the bats you may encounter are the fishing bat, the sharp-nosed bat and the tent-making bat. Journey to the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, a 5-million-acre wildlife sanctuary on the eastern flank of the Andes, where tributaries converge to birth the mighty Amazon River. Hear from WWF researchers about what is at stake and how you can be part of a force for conservation change.
P.S. If you are in search of a conservation-themed costume for this year’s festivities, look no further than these newly discovered species for inspiration: Myotis nimbaenis possesses striking Halloween colors with black wings and orange fur and fingers. This six-ounce bat lives in abandoned mine shafts in Guinea’s Nimba Mountains. A bat with long golden hair was dubbed the Lance Bass Bat for its striking resemblance to the *NSYNC band member’s iconic frosted tips. This rare species was discovered in the sub-Himalayan habitat of Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi forest.