Skin stretched over skeletal wings, a wide mouth with fangs opened in a shriek and a thick Transylvanian accent growling, "I vant to suck your blood," are the ideas often conjured when bats are mentioned. The flying mammal is the definition of things that go bump in the night and is commonly used as eerie decorations for Halloween.
According to Dr. Troy Best and his students Lydia Moore and Sam Hirt, the bat is misunderstood largely because it has been exaggerated by folklore and pop culture.
"There's a big mystery about them because you don't ever see them except at night or at dusk and there's not a lot of research on them," said Hirt, a PhD. student specializing in bats.
Moore, a graduate student in biological sciences, explained that humans have feared nocturnal animals for centuries. Moore said stories were often made up to explain what people couldn't observe for themselves, which led to stigmatizing virtually harmless creatures.
"There's this kind of irrational fear about these animals," Moore said.
Moore debunked a traditional myth that bats like to get tangled in people's hair. Moore said mosquitos are attracted to the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans, she said. The cloud of mosquitos attracts bats, which swoop around acting like a natural insecticide and occasionally spooking humans.
Dr. Best said another common fear is that bats carry rabies and should be exterminated. According to Best, who has more than 40 years of bat research behind him, the incidence of rabies in bats is less than that of foxes, raccoons and skunks.
But do vampire bats really "vant to suck your blood"? Dr. Best said this is another misconception. The three known species of vampire bats are usually only found in parts of Mexico and South America and feed solely on the blood of birds or mammals other than humans. Popular culture has taken a particularly gruesome aspect of these bats' diet and capitalized on it.
From Bruce Wayne to Dracula, chiroptophobia--the fear of bats--has been a source of horror movie gold, but for the bat population this has been a great disservice.
"I've heard stories of exterminators taking bats out of houses and stepping on them," Moore said. Attics resemble caves to bats and because of urbanization, the odds of having a screeching, flying guest in your home have increased.
"They are for the most part harmless," Hirt said. "Just like any wild animal, you don't want to pick it up."
If you end up playing host to a bat, Hirt advised opening the windows and doors of your house or apartment and allowing the bat to find its own way out.
To help spread education about bat populations in Alabama, Dr. Best and the Tri-Beta COSAM Honor Society organized the 32nd annual Bat Walk at the Donald E. Davis Arboretum, which was held Oct. 26.
Information was geared to anyone interested in learning about bats, but Tri-Beta likes teaching children about bats in particular. In addition to showing a film and a Q & A session, attendees were able to hunt for bats in the arboretum using night-vision goggles and get close to bats humanely captured by Tri-Beta for the event. At the end of the night, the bats were released into the arboretum. Moore served as the emcee at the event.
"This is making them less scary and make people realize that they are very important for agriculture," Moore said.
Bats are an integral part of the ecology in Alabama and with education, Best, Moore and Hirt hope to spread the positive image bats deserve.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman