Educator dispels some of the myths that surround bats

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Saturday, April 24, 2010
— Unfurling a 3-foot wing like a black, rubbery umbrella, Kamila hooked a piece of melon with her thumb claw.

While hanging upside down from a branch, she opened her long, doglike snout and snapped up part of the fruit. She licked her chops and peered around with alert, rust-red eyes the same color as the bristled fur on her neck.

She might look like a 1950’s B movie monster, but Kamila, a Malayan flying fox, is completely docile. Native to tropical Asia, she is of the world’s largest known variety of fruit bat.

Kamila was just one of several types of bats on display at Live Bat Encounter, held Friday afternoon at UW-Rock County’s Kirk Denmark Theatre.

Hosting the show was Dale Smart, an education specialist with the Organization for Bat Conservation. The Bloomfield, Mich., group focuses on bat conservation worldwide and care for wounded bats.

For 14 years, Smart has traveled the country with pet carriers full of bats.

His job: to raise awareness about threatened bat species, to educate the public on bats and to fight negative stereotypes about bats.

“I try to de-myth-ify them as much as I can,” Smart told the Gazette in an interview before the bat show.

Some facts about bats Smart shared Friday:

--Bats make up one-quarter of all mammal life, but nearly half of all bat species are on decline. Contributing factors, Smart said, are disease, habitat loss and, in tropical countries, hunting pressure.

--They don’t carry rabies. Smart said Rabies kills nearly all bats that contract it within a few days. If you see a bat and it’s alive, there’s a less than 1 percent chance it has rabies, Smart said.

--Bats are not flying mice. In fact, they’re more closely related to primates than rodents, Smart said. Want proof? Bats have thumbs, sort of.

--They aren’t blind, darn it. Smart said some bats, like the Malayan flying fox, can see at night, in color, with far greater acumen than people.

--Vampire bats do exist. They live in South America, but they seldom feed on human blood, Smart said. People, it seems, make them ill.

“Our blood gives them gas and diarrhea. We’re like junk food for vampire bats,” Smart said.

Other bats Smart showed, such as Echo, a big brown bat, eat insects.

Lots of them.

Big brown bats, which are native to southern Wisconsin, can eat up to 6,000 mosquitoes and other bugs a night, Smart explained while feeding Echo a mealworm.

With a special machine, Smart amplified a sub-audible noise Echo was generating. Small bats use echolocation like sonar to find prey and obstacles while in flight.

As Echo clung to Smart’s shirt, he looked around for another mealworm. Smart’s amplifier crackled and sputtered.

“He’s wide awake now,” Smart said.

Dylan Dodd, 5, Janesville, a guest at the bat show, marveled at the creatures. He said he’s not afraid of bats—not even megabats such as Kamila, who is more than 2 feet long with a 6-foot wingspan.

“I would keep it in my closet and feed it frogs,” Dylan said about Kamila.

Too bad for Dylan. Kamila eats only fruit and flowers.


For more information about the Organization for Bat Conservation’s mission to heal and protect threatened bats worldwide, go to batconservation.org.

Last updated: 1:21 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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