Wildlife biologist explains bat myths

Article written by Karen Shih
Originally published by Phys.Org (Wed, 24 Oct, 2023)

It's officially spooky season: Nights are creeping in earlier. A fall chill has descended. Skeletons and witches and jack-o-lanterns dot every street.

So you can expect to see swarms of bats swooping overhead as you greet trick-or-treaters, right?

"Unfortunately, the month when we finally stop and think about bats, they're not as available to see in this area," said University of Maryland wildlife biologist Shannon Browne, Ph.D. '21, a bat expert and lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology. Instead, they're most active in the summer, when their preferred prey, insects, are plentiful. Browne remembers watching bats dive around her aunt's swimming pool in Bowie, Maryland, for sips of water.

For her doctoral dissertation, she examined bat populations in Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Delaware to determine the habitats where they're most active. She discovered that suburban neighborhoods are the favored sports for some of Maryland's vulnerable bat species, especially during fall mating season. Now, she's using these findings as she serves as an expert witness on how highway projects or building construction, such as widening the American Legion Bridge and adding toll lanes to I-270, could destroy bat habitats.

Browne explains why they're (mostly) not little Draculas, where they actually sleep, and why you do want them flittering around your backyard during the swampiest months.

Myth: They're after your blood

Out of the 1,400 bat species in the world, just three are vampire bats—and they don't live in Maryland. Instead, they prefer the warm, humid climates of Central and South America, and their preferred meal sources are large, domestic animals like cattle, horses and pigs.

"They are super cool and very specialized," Browne said. With special grooves in their teeth, they create a small nick in the skin. Their saliva has an enzyme that allows blood to continue flowing instead of clotting. Research on these palm-sized bats could help lead to treatments for strokes and other human diseases, Browne said.

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