As you head out trick-or-treating or to your costume parties on Halloween night, forget your fears about swooping bats sucking the blood from your neck.
Those are just old Halloween myths, said Jenna Jarvis, an assistant professor of biology at Missouri Southern State University.
"Bats don't want to do that," she said. "They have no desire to get tangled in your hair. As far as humans go, they have absolutely nothing they want from humans."
The critters have certainly gotten a bad rap over the years and are highly misunderstood creatures, said Jarvis, who previously worked with a captive colony of Mexican free-tailed bats as a graduate student at Texas A&M University. Among the most common misconceptions:
- Contrary to the popular saying "blind as a bat," the mammals are not blind. Although they rely heavily on echolocation, which is the use of sound waves and echoes to determine where objects are in space, they can still see, Jarvis said.
- Although they can carry rabies, as most mammals can, the disease does not run rampant in them. Less than half of 1 percent of all bats become rabid, according to the University of Missouri Extension.
- They do not feed on blood — at least not locally. Most bats in North America are insectivores, feeding primarily on flying insects such as moths and mosquitoes, Jarvis said. The blood-sucking vampire bat is native to South America and is typically not interested in attacking humans, she said.
Jarvis said bats are actually an integral, if often invisible, part of the ecosystem.
"They keep insect numbers down, including ones that would be harmful to human health, and they’re beneficial to farmers because they eat crop pests," she said. "Almost the only times bats are going to be a problem is when they get into people's houses, which they sometimes like to do because they're warm and dry and have lots of places to hide. But for the most part, bats really aren’t that big of a danger."
So why do some people still experience chiroptophobia, or fear of bats? It could be simply because bats are nocturnal, which automatically puts them at odds with humans, Jarvis said.
"People tend to be afraid of the things that are nocturnal because we're daytime creatures, and things that are active at night tend to freak us out a little," she said.
Several North American bat populations, particularly those that hibernate in caves, are also facing a recently uncovered health threat: white-nose syndrome. This disease is caused by a fungus that invades the bats' skin tissues during hibernation and causes extensive damage, according to the National Wildlife Health Center, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Despite efforts to contain it, the disease has killed millions of bats in 22 states and in Canada since it emerged in 2008, the wildlife center said.
Jarvis said the deadly disease could push some bat species toward endangerment or, worse, to extinction.
"Now is the time that they need support more than ever," she said. "They need understanding; they need people who are dedicated to conservation."
Younker writes for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe.