Bats of South Africa: Night Creatures

Mention the word bat and people begin conjuring up images of dark, evil, frightening creatures who suck your blood. Misconceptions placed on bats have certainly not made them popular, however, bats play a vital role in biodiversity and in the sustainability of the environment. South Africa boasts some 7 fruit-eating bat species as well as 65 insectivorous bat species.

Before we consider some facts about bats let us allay some of the scary bat tales with truth. Although bats make use of sonar during flight, they are not blind. Bats are highly unlikely to get tangled in your hair as they are effective at avoiding objects whilst in flight. Bats do not attack people and infrequently carry diseases such as rabies. Interestingly, bats are of great importance in South Africa’s ecosystems. In fact they benefit mankind by eating insects and pollinating plants, making them a farmer’s friend. Records state that a bat colony at De Hoop Cave numbering 300 000 individuals eat some 100 tons of insects per annum. Bats may be considered a problem when living in a roof, however it is illegal to poison bats and they must be humanely removed.

Bats are separated into two distinct groups: Megachiroptera (fruit-eaters) and Microchiroptera (insect-eaters). Fruit eating bats feed on ripe fruits and play a role in plant pollination. Insect eating bats keep us free of mosquitoes and other insects. Of all the mammals, bats are the only order capable of flight. The thin wing membrane extends over the bats elongated forelimb fingers, along the side and to the ankles. Bats chiefly make use of their well-developed sense of hearing. Echolocation is used by Microchiroptera whilst hunting for insects. Whilst flying insectivorous bats will emit sound waves of a high frequency from their nostrils or mouth. This can sometimes be heard by humans as clicks. The sound waves are reflected off of solid objects and sent back to the bat’s well-developed ears. They are then able to locate food and avoid obstacles.

South Africa’s fruit bats or Megachiroptera suborder consists of 7 species. They are typically large in size with distinctively dog-like faces. Fruit bats occurring in South Africa include the following species: Straw-coloured Fruit-bat (Eidolon helvum); Egyptian Fruit-bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus), Wahlberg’s Epauletted Fruit-bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) and Peters’s Epauletted Fruit-bat (Epomophorus crypturus).

The Suborder Microchiroptera or insectivorous bats of South Africa number some 65 species. The differ from the fruit bats in that they have one claw per wing and are often much smaller. In general, these are the much less attractive bats, with nose-leaves and wrinkles. Insectivorous bats of South Africa occur in the following families: Sheath-tailed and Tomb bats (Emballonuridae); Trident and Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideridae), Slit-faced bats (Nycteridae); Horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae), Vesper bats (Vespertilionidae) and Free-tailed bats (Molossidae).

The Endangered Wildlife Trust of South Africa has a Bat Conservation Group which engages in research and conservation of bats. They take time to educate the public and create awareness. As such, bats are less feared and seen as a valuable entity in the environment. So next time you see a bat darting overhead, don’t cringe, rather thank them for the excellent job they are doing.