It is common to see bats flying around streetlights on most nights – Their dark silhouette and mid-air antics. They are so fast, they are often hard to identify. Come to think of it, if we knew they were bats we would fly inside just as quickly!
Our fear of bats is quite irrational. It stems from how bats are depicted as monsters in popular culture and folklore. Their dramatic features with fanged teeth and unusually large ears, don’t help their case. In fact, it is these features that have inspired countless stories of bloodsucking vampires and their legions, and one very horrific tale of Count Dracula who lurks in the dark to stalk and prey upon his unsuspecting victims.
In truth, very little is known of our winged insect-eating critters. They are shy and inconspicuous. They are nocturnal creatures, who spend most of their active time hunting for insects and foraging food. And their curious habits remain shielded by the copious cover of the night when they operate and their ability to quickly disperse at the first sign of intrusion.
We do, however, know that they are an indispensable part of our environment. They are insectivores that help curb the spread of agricultural pests. And they contribute immensely to biodiversity.
Here in this blog, we shed light on the secret lives of microbats in Perth. Their habits and habitats. And what we must do to protect the threatened creatures.
Bats make up almost one-quarter of all known mammal species in the world. There are two varieties of bats – the megabat, also known as the fruit bat, and the microbat.
- Megabats can be large and weigh up to a kilo. They have large wingspans of over a metre.
- Microbats, on the other hand, are tiny. Some microbats weigh a mere 3gms and can fit through small gaps that are 5mm wide. The larger microbats can weigh up to 150gms and have wingspans of 25cms.
Scientists believe that the two varieties of bat evolved separately and regard them as distinctly different groups.
Microbats give birth to one pup per year, or sometimes twins. The babies are born during spring or summer, when days are warm with ample sunlight and when there is a good supply of food. They are born with their eyes closed, but within a short span of 6-8 weeks, they develop into fully grown adults that can fly and feed independently.
Microbats are extremely adept flyers and can remain airborne for hours at a time. They use echolocation to navigate and hunt in the dark. Bats emit high-frequency sound waves that bounce off objects. By reading the returning waves they are able to tell what lies in their path. The microbats can locate flying insects and detect obstacles in their way with great accuracy using this method.
The waves that bounce back to the microbat tell it a lot about the object – how far it is, its texture, its shape, its size and if it is stationary or moving.
Many bats have special features to help them echolocate. Some have very long ears for hearing. Others have a growth on their nose, called a nose leaf, which focusses sound.
The Myotis microbat that lives near waterways has been recorded catching over 1200 flies in under 1 hour.
Microbats use this technique of “gleaning off” to catch insects that are not flying.
Bats do this by flying slowly, hanging on branches or even hovering closely. The microbats listen for tell-tale sounds of movements that their targets make like the motion of bugs on the ground or as insects shuffle along branches. They use a combination of echolocation and instinct to zero in on their prey. Then they strike and pluck the insects off the leaves, branches or ground, wherever they may be. In a clean hit.
The Golden-tipped microbat uses this technique to glean off spiders, swooping them straight out of their webs.
Microbats go into a state of torpor, which is very similar to hibernation, to conserve energy on days when food is scarce. Torpor can only be used temporarily for a few hours or days at a time.
The microbats mostly eat insects. One Australian species, called the ghost bat, is also known to eat small birds, frogs, lizards and other smaller bats.
During daylight hours microbats are known to spend their time inside hollows of tree trunks or branches. The clearing away of trees is creating a major lack of habitat for our vulnerable critters.
In such conditions, microbats will find shelter in manmade structures such as inside mineshafts, tunnels, buildings, under bridges, inside rooftops and in your gardens.
Usually, microbats are extremely fussy while choosing their roosts. You can help microbats by installing safely designed and comfortable bat boxes.
Clear away debris or branches from their flight path. Remove barbed wires from around your property. Ensure that the bat box you install is placed high and in direct sunlight – the best position is facing East in direct sun half-day and shade in the other half. Inspect the box regularly. And, report feral bee infestation immediately.
The Yellow-bellied Sheathtail microbat has an echolocation call that people with sharp ears can hear – a metallic sounding tick tick tick.
Bat Haven At The Wetlands Centre
We, The Wetlands Centre Cockburn, are located in the heart of the Beeliar Regional Park, surrounded by abundant natural beauty. Here we have been working at rehabilitating & conserving our wetlands and educating our community on wetland concerns for the last 25 years.
It is our dream to create safe habitats for all our wildlife, including our microbats. Together with bat expert and specialist Joe Tonga, we have installed a number of well-designed bat boxes towards this endeavour. Our bat boxes showcase healthy bat roosts that are thriving!
Our bat stalk night for children is an adventurous outdoor activity, where we learn about bats through real-life encounters. Children love flashing their torchlights and being out in the bush, and it is, of course, all under guided supervision. We also conduct the bat stalk night for adults with nibbles – cheese and drink – and deep conversation.
Ask us about our bat programs. Take a look at our many bat boxes. And learn more about these beautiful wetland creatures – the microbats!
Also published on Medium.