The truth about bats: They're 'super cute' and useful

They come out at night and look like winged mice. Many people have a disdain, if not an outright fear, of bats — but researchers say there's no need.

Bat researcher Jordi Segers has some fascinating facts about these furry winged friends

A bat — Segers says it's hard to tell if it's a little brown or a northern long-eared bat — flies in P.E.I.'s evening sun. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

They come out at night and look like winged mice. Many people have a disdain, if not an outright fear, of bats — but researchers say there's no need. 

Of 1,300 bat species worldwide, three are known to live on P.E.I.: little brown bats and northern long-eared bats make the Island their year-round home and are listed as endangered, while hoary bats (referring to the frosty-looking tips of its fur) are summer residents. 

I know all the stories about bats flying into your hair and drinking your blood.— Jordi Segers, bat scientist

Jordi Segers with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown is a researcher and a champion of bats. He agreed to share his extensive knowledge of the Island's bat population. 

1.) Bats have a 'superpower'

Bats have a biological sonar called echolocation, which Segers likens to a "superpower." When they fly at night they emit a high-pitched scream — at a frequency unheard by human ears — that bounces off objects and allows bats to navigate extremely well. 

"They can detect insects as small as a noseeum, and smaller than mosquitoes," said Segers. 

2.) No need to be afraid

"I know all the stories about bats flying into your hair and drinking your blood," said Segers. "Many of those stories are not true at all, and most only hold half a truth."

If a bat gets trapped in your house, try to take it outside in a bucket and handle it with very thick gloves, Segers says. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

All bat species in Canada eat only bugs and have no interest in people other than the bugs that will often gather around human heads. 

Segers advises not swatting at bats outdoors, but "just go about your business ... you're both going to end up being happier. The bat will have food and you'll have less mosquitoes around your head."

'Bats are super cute,' says P.E.I. bat researcher Jordi Segers. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

"In my opinion, bats are super cute, although in general people don't perceive it that way," he said. 

Vampire bats live in South and Central America, but almost always drink animal blood — usually of cows and birds, Segers said. They land on a cow's leg, usually making a tiny incision near the hoof with their fang and drink a small amount of blood. "Their prey generally doesn't even notice," Segers said. Interesting sub-fact: vampire bats must feed nightly or they will die. 

3.) Big appetites

Bats can eat their own body weigh in mosquitoes every night— about 1,200 mosquito-sized insects per hour. 

4.) Hanging out

Although bats can likely be found just about anywhere on P.E.I., Segers said scientists have been able to detect some "hot spots" including the Island's freshwater ponds and wetlands. 

Jordi Segers took this dramatic snap of Mexican free-tailed bats at Bracken Cave in Texas, home to the world's largest bat colony. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

During the day they hang out — yes, upside down — roosting in dark places including tree cavities, building attics and bat houses.

If you encounter bats indoors, Segers advises contacting the province to put you in touch with a wildlife control expert. They will direct bats outdoors during the proper season, after which you can plug holes in your property to prevent them getting in again. 

You'll want to put up a bat house outside to benefit from bats' bug-eating prowess. 

5.) Chilling out

Bats hibernate underground from October to late May, where it's cool year-round but not freezing.

This hoary bat, one of three species found on P.E.I., 'is echolocating and not growling' notes Segers. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

Up until about three years ago, Segers said, scientists including him believed bats living on P.E.I. in the summer left for neighbouring provinces to hibernate in mines and caves, since there are none on the Island. 

"But it turns out they actually use wells on P.E.I.," from old homesteads, said Segers, who's taken photos of bats using abandoned wells. 

6.) They are not mice with wings

Bats are mammals, but they are their own group — not flying rodents, Segers emphasizes. Like mice, however, bats' main predators are owls and snakes.

7.) Live long and prosper

The oldest little brown bat on record in North America was at least 32 years old, Segers said. 

Segers got this shot of hibernating bats in an old P.E.I. well. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

"That's a very impressive age for an animal that is so small and has a very, very fast metabolism," he said. "Generally other animals that are that size, like mice, and have a fast metabolism, don't live more than a couple years."

This longevity is for now a scientific mystery, Segers said. 

8.) They're promiscuous

Mating season happens right before hibernation in the fall, and Segers said, male bats will mate with as many females as they can, travelling to several sites. They'll even wait until females to go into hibernation and mate with partners who are "out cold," including other males, Segers said. 

Females hang on to the sperm until the spring, using it to fertilize their eggs it only after they come out of hibernation. Gestation then takes about six weeks. Bats have one pup per year. 

9.) Eat and run

Bats "hardly lose speed" when they drink water, Segers notes, simply opening their mouths as they fly over ponds or streams. 

Researchers have discovered bats on P.E.I. use abandoned wells to hibernate, Segers says. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

And rather than simply catching insects in their open mouths, they "scoop up" insects with their tail membrane, then stick their face in their tail and eat the insect — all while flying. 

10.) Uncertain future

White-nose syndrome is a fungus has been spreading among North American bats, including the populations on P.E.I., killing them rapidly — so the future of bats on the Island is uncertain. 

Recent research has given Segers and others hope that the fungus can be combatted.

This little brown bat is one of the species found on P.E.I. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca