Species Spotlight: Bats

Bats have a bad rap. Whether it be the belief that they are flying rodents, blind and get tangled in your hair, or want to suck your blood, there is no end to stories about them that feed on fear bred from a lack of understanding, and unfortunately the fallout for these ecologically important creatures is huge.

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“But they’ll give you rabies!” people scream, when in reality fewer than 0.5% of bats contract the virus in the first place, and it often kills them.  In Australia there have only been 2 cases of humans contracting Australian Bat Lyssavirus.  More humans die from altercations with household pets than have died from interacting with bats in recorded history (indeed, I often point out that “man’s best friend” frequently attacks people for no reason, yet nobody screams foul). And: any increase in “bat attacks” is due to US continually encroaching in THEIR native habitat.  (note: it is still not recommended you touch a downed one unless vaccinated and qualified to do so)

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Although I sure wouldn’t want to be that banana.

Bats make up about 20% of all mammal species on earth. They are split into two groups: Fruit-eating megabats, and microbats, which are primarily insectivorous (although some eat fish, frogs, blood, and so forth).  Some scientists believe the two groups may have evolved separately though convergent evolution, although this theory has lost ground in recent years. (although interestingly, the flying fox’s brain is remarkably similar to a lemur’s. And female short-nosed bats are the only non-primate species to perform fellatio during intercourse…)

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Ron has no trouble performing fellatio on himself. Prints available here.

Who likes mosquitoes? Bats are nature’s insecticide, and love them.  A single Little Brown Bat can consume upwards of 1000 mosquitoes per hour, and do so for upwards of 40 years.  There have been several cases where farmers noticed a sharp rise in pest-damage to crops after eliminating a colony of bats from their property, and sought to encourage their return.

A Ghost Bat at the Adelaide Zoo. Ghost Bats are vulnerable to extinction.

A Ghost Bat at the Adelaide Zoo. Ghost Bats are vulnerable to extinction.

Meanwhile, fruit and nectar-loving flying foxes are key pollinators (as it gets stuck to their muzzles as they feed), and seed-dispensers (through their poop), both of which help forests regenerate. Forests that are filled with critters people generally do like a lot more than bats.

Unfortunately, despite being such important and beneficial animals, nearly 1/4 of bat species are threatened with extinction. On top of the usual human-induced culprits such as habitat loss, microbats in North America are now falling prey to a fungal infection called White Nose Syndrome. It has been called “the greatest threat to bats ever seen”, and has caused population declines of upwards of 90%.

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Photo credit: Nancy Heaslip, with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Flying Foxes in Australia, meanwhile, keep finding themselves on the receiving end of “relocation” efforts. In 2013 in Charters Towers, Queensland, the local council used smoke, paintballs, high-pressure water hoses, and fireworks to drive 80,000 bats out of town. Acting against (or perhaps because of) the advice of conservationists, they did it during a critical time in the birthing season when infants were too big to fly with their mothers, but to small to fly by themselves, effectively wiping out the next generation. Rescuers were prevented from rescuing downed pups.

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These bats are believed to have re-settled in Townsville, where they were again forced to relocate. But where do they go when we keep destroying their habitat? Entire colonies are now disappearing (as I heard from a conservationist involved in a count), yet their conservation statuses rarely seem to change.

In a town in New South Wales, residents recently tried to set fire to a colony of bats, stating “reduced quality of living, and damage to property”.  I think the bats could say the same thing about living near humans. Humans encroach on their homes, cut down their forests so they have nowhere to go, and then have the audacity to try and set fire to them while calling the bats a plague? Give me a break!!!!!!!

And it isn’t just in Australia. The Mauritian government recently culled 18,000 endemic Mauritian Flying Foxes — a staggering 20% of the threatened population.

So how can you help bats? Install bat-boxes. If you live in warmer climes, don’t trim dead leaves off palm trees, as these can serve as roosts. Volunteer at or donate to rescue centres and other conservation efforts. But most importantly, inform others of how cool bats can be. During my time volunteering at BatReach Kuranda, I shared the stories of the bats I cared for, and several people sent messages saying they had never realised how amazing bats are. The stigma can so easily be reversed if people just open their minds.

Brad would thank you if you do.

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Further reading: To Know Bats is to Love Them

Travel Tips: The Backpacker (and how to avoid them)

Many species have been misrepresented over the years. The killer whale’s Latin name roughly means “Demon from the Depths of Hell”, and they were used as target practice until Moby Doll showed us otherwise. Wolves have been mercilessly hunted to extinction in some regions because they too were viewed as monsters. The thylacine was hunted to complete extinction on account of its alleged habit of eating chickens (even though this famous photo is believed by some to have been staged).

There is one subspecies I have personally lived among that I believe has an inaccurate reputation, and that is the backpacker. Often presented as an adventurous young person heroically traveling the world in search of new experiences, carrying only what they can put on their backs, backpackers are in fact noisy codependent alcoholics with short attention spans and little interest in anything that doesn’t satisfy their need to disturb everyone else around them.

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To the backpacker, sitting quietly engaging in any solo activity such as reading a book is seen as a cry for help. Backpackers cannot fathom why anyone would want to be by themselves, let alone be QUIET! I came to suspect that the reason they are so noisy is to alert other backpackers to their presence to ensure they do not accidentally find themselves alone.

More times than I can count, backpackers would hear of my adventures with an expression somewhere between awe and disbelief, replying with some variation of “Oooh, I would love to go there but I have nobody to go with!” Many did not seem to understand my words when I suggested they go by themselves. As such, many spent their entire time abroad in the hostel, never venturing further than the nearest source of food, usually a pub where other backpackers were sure to be found.

Why someone would pay thousands of dollars to travel overseas just so they can sit around getting drunk is beyond me.

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On those rare times the backpacker does venture forth to see the sights, they are incapable of enjoying anything that they can’t get drunk with, take a good selfie with, or build a fire in. Ancient rainforest? Great place to sing crappy pop songs at the top of their lungs (I guess it was too quiet). National park with spectacular cliffside formations? “What do you mean I can’t build a fire here? This is boring!” Beautiful waterfall? “Time to get naked and ruin its natural beauty for everyone else!”

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended -- review forthcoming)

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended — review forthcoming)

Case in point: a natural cave had been “enhanced” with steps and seating carved into the rock.  My friend pondered why, so I explained how backpackers can’t enjoy anything natural without the aforementioned conditions. With eerily perfect timing a large group of German backpackers carrying a portable barbecue and several coolers came noisily up the steps, announcing their presence to everyone within a 10km radius.

So if you plan on traveling on a budget, take heed! Pay the extra few dollars for a proper tour that you are confident is not aimed at backpackers (watch this blog for reviews!), especially if you hope to see some nature on it. Consider alternatives to the hostel scene, such as AirBNB. If you must stay in a hostel, check reviews on tripadvisor for ones that backpackers claim “lacks atmosphere” or “is full of old people”, and make sure there is not an attached pub or you’ll never have a second alone to pee or get a wink of sleep in preparation for your own adventures… which is just how the backpackers prefer it.