UW News

October 27, 2022

Bats are everywhere, but they get special attention around Halloween

UW News

A close up shot of Sharlene Santana in the dark, looking at a small bat in her hand.

Sharlene Santana

These nocturnal flying mammals live in cities and rural areas and in most climates around the world – and maybe even in your own backyard.

Sharlene Santana, a University of Washington professor of biology and curator of mammals at the Burke Museum, explains that there are over 1,400 species of bats spanning an incredible diversity. Only three of the species are vampire bats which feed on the blood of birds or mammals. Most bats feed on insects, but diets vary from lizards, birds or mice to fruit and nectar. Bats play a vital role in ecosystems by controlling insect populations, pollinating plants as they move from bloom to bloom, and spreading seeds as they fly and poop.

One focus of Santana’s research is how bats have evolved to have different abilities and specializations. Bats are the only mammals that fly by flapping their wings (compared to gliding). Their handlike, membraned wing structures are incredibly maneuverable in tight spaces. Flying has enabled bats to access a lot of different food sources, she explains, which has probably shaped their diversity over time. 

Digital rendering of a vampire bat skull with its jaw open

Digital rendering of a common vampire bat skull

Bat skulls, for example, have different shapes. Fruit-eating bats tend to have a shorter skull, optimized for a stronger bite, whereas a nectar bat’s long snout houses a long tongue. But they’re not limited to foraging with their mouths. Many bats will scoop up insects with a membrane that stretches between their hind legs like a sail while flying. 

Even vampire bats, who sidle up to their animal prey to make a small incision with sharp teeth and lick the resulting blood, have evolved to hop and scoot using their legs and folded wings to get away quickly from their victims. After a big meal, it turns out, they can be too heavy to fly.

Santana hopes people will get past bats’ scary reputation. 

“It would make sense that because we can’t quite discern what these animals are at night, we might be a little scared of them. But if you see the faces of bats – some flying foxes look like little puppies – you realize they can be super cute.”

For more information, contact Sharlene Santana / ssantana@uw.edu

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