Bats — nocturnal nuisances or fascinating friends?

2013-01-23 00:00

IT seems that everyone has a different attitude towards bats. As a child, I feared them, as I was told they could get caught up in your hair! I then learnt about the infamous vampire bat that could creep into one’s bed at night and suck all your blood out. Why is it that adults do their children a disservice by telling them about things they know so little about?

Bats are fascinating animals, not only because they are the only group of mammals that can truly fly, but because of their interesting lifestyles. Bats belong to an order of animals called Chiroptera, a word of Greek derivation meaning “hand-wings”, a good descriptive word as the wings of bats are indeed modified hands.

We have two main groups in South Africa the Megachiroptera and the Microchiroptera. As the words suggest the former group are large, while the latter are small. While all are nocturnal, the big bats eat fruit (frugivorous), while the small ones feed on insects (insectivorous).

Let’s talk a little about one of the commonest of our KZN fruit bats — one that goes by the grand name of Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat. Even though few people have seen these creatures up close, many hear them or see evidence of their presence.

Wahlberg’s fruit bat is fairly widespread in KZN, inhabiting the lower-lying eastern parts of the province. Its natural habitat is coastal forest, but it has taken happily to living in wooded suburbia. These large (head/body length 18 cm) bats are associated with fruiting trees where they can also be found roosting during the day. Dr Peter Taylor’s book The smaller mammals of KwaZulu-Natal (University of Natal Press, PMB, 1998) tells me that they prefer wild fig trees (ficus species) and other indigenous fruiting trees, but that they are also happy to feed on exotic fruits such as mango, pawpaw, avocado and guava. I can add to this list as my neighbour’s loquat tree is much favoured. Fruit bats can roost in groups of up to 100 and because the males have a rather monotonous honking call and both sexes defecate in flight, sometimes plastering walls with their droppings, they are frequently considered pests. For those who experience these problems, I believe that bright lights can act as a deterrent.

Fruit bats apparently breed throughout the year, although they have peaks in July and mid-summer. Males not only call when trying to attract a mate, they have a fairly unusual visual display as well. This involves erecting the patches of white hair at the bases of their ears (called epaulettes) while frantically fluttering their wings. What they are doing isn’t fully understood, but they have special glands associated with the tufts of hair and so they may be using a pheromone to attract females.

There are only four species of fruit bat known in KZN, some rather poorly as they are non-breeding migrants. The insect-feeding bats are far more numerous and about 36 species have been recorded from KZN. Most of these roost in caves or other such places, as well as in roofs and other similar human-made structures. This is a mixed blessing in as much as people can rid themselves of a colony by making a bat house and encouraging the bats to move to more acceptable quarters. Bats are protected animals and many species appear to be threatened due to a variety of factors.

Quite a few people have asked me about bats and so readers may be interested to know that there is an active Bat Interest Group in KZN. This group is affiliated to the Friends of the Durban Natural Science Museum and would be happy to assist with queries — and take on new members.

Oh, I nearly forgot, you really should know that vampire bats are only found in Central and South America, are rather small, and, although they do feed on blood, hardly ever attack humans.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa.net

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