All about bats!

Bat Fast Facts!

  • Bats are NOT rodents
  • Bats are NOT blind
  • Bats have been flying for over 50 million years
  • There are 1,054 species of bats worldwide
  • “Giant bats” i.e. Flying Foxes/Fruit Bats (Megachiroptera) are only in the Old World
  • All bats in the U.S. are insectivorous
  • There are 13 species of bat in Ohio
  • Hawaii has its own native bat species
  • Bats in the U.S. are declining precipitously due to White-Nose Syndrome
  • Nectar-eating bats are important pollinators along with hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies


Alongside snakes and spiders, the bat ranks prominently among the maligned and misunderstood inhabitants with whom we share our world. In popular culture bats have long been associated with rodents, blindness, vampires, and disease.

NOT a mouse, and NOT interested in your hair


Bat Basics

The word for this flying mammal in some languages reflects one misguided impression; the German word for bat is fledermaus, or “flying mouse”, while in French chauve-souris means “bald mouse”.

Bats, however, are not even remotely related to rodents. The closest evolutionary branch to the bats is that which led to today’s cats, dogs, bears, horses, pigs, whales, and deer. In fact, primates (i.e. us) are more closely related to rodents than bats!


(Hours could be spent exploring the detailed and interactive phylogenetic trees at So far, only tetrapod vertebrate species and plants are available to explore, and species known only from fossils are not included in the trees.)

Acerodon jubatus
Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox (Acerodon jubatus)

So if bats are not rodents or shrews with wings, what are they? Like all mammals, their early ancestor was something small, nocturnal, and insectivorous. DNA evidence suggests the bats branched off from other placental mammals 100 million years ago, or about 30-40 million years before the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, but so far the earliest fossil definitively identified as a bat is the 52.5 million-year-old Onychonycteris finneyi. This early bat was capable of flight, but scientists are still debating whether it had the ability to echolocate. By 33.5 million years ago, all 26 modern families of bats had evolved. So bats are really their own thing, and make up the most recent branch of the Carnivora family tree!

Today there are around 5000 species of mammals, and bats alone comprise over 1/5 of them! Bats are divided into two suborders: the Microchiroptera (small, mostly carnivorous bats that echolocate) and Megachiroptera (fruit bats and flying foxes that do not echolocate). Most bat species can easily fit in a person’s hand, but the fruit-eating Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox of the Philippines is among the largest, with a wingspan exceeding 5 feet.

Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)

In Ohio, we have 13 species of bats, including the gorgeous Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), the adorable Northern Long-Eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and the diminutive Tri-colored Bat Perimyotis subflavus (formerly known as the Eastern Pipistrelle).

Another misconception is the old adage, “blind as a bat”. While some bat species have eyesight that is relatively poor, no known species of bat is truly blind; even nocturnal species rely on changing light levels to discern when it’s time to become active. Other bats have such well-developed vision that they can detect color at night, making their vision much better than a human’s. Many bat species also “see with their ears” using highly sophisticated echolocation, enhanced in some species by prominences and structures on the ears and nose.

Honduran White Bats (Ectophylla alba). Flickr user: Wanja Krah
Honduran White Bats (Ectophylla alba). Flickr user: Wanja Krah

While bats are frequently associated with vampires and the act of drinking blood, only three species of bats depend on blood as their sole food source, and two of those drink bird blood; the third species does not frequently target humans. All are found in Central and South America. Rather than suck blood through hollow fangs as mythical vampires do, they make an incision with their extremely sharp incisors and lap up the blood. The skin patches on their noses have evolved to be particularly sensitive to heat, and their saliva contains anticoagulants and other compounds that prevent clots from forming. One of these compounds was identified for potential use in stroke victims.

Bats are also branded as carriers of disease, particularly rabies. There are 1-2 rabies infections in the U.S. per year, so a person living in the U.S. is more likely to catch leprosy or the plague than contract rabies from a bat. And as I learned a couple months ago, a person is also 40 times more likely to die in a forklift accident than die of rabies.

Yo dawg, I heard you like forklifts. (DO NOT DO THIS)

Worldwide, 99% of rabies deaths are due to encounters with rabid dogs, which is not an issue in the U.S. (thanks to successful vaccination programs). Bats are far less likely to carry rabies than skunks, raccoons, coyotes, foxes and unvaccinated pets; however their small size and docility makes bats appear harmless, so people are more likely to handle them. But bats are extremely feisty and will bite readily when handled! As a result over 80% of rabies cases in the U.S. are due to bat bites resulting from direct handling.

The person holding this state-listed Endangered Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis) has had their rabies vaccine series and the necessary training to handle bats safely.

Any bat that is active during the day, lying on the ground and/or does not fly away when approached should not be handled.

Keep pets and children away from the bat, call your local wildlife officer or wildlife rehabilitation center for assistance, and finally—don’t kill it. According to Ohio Administrative Code, it is against the law to exterminate a bat, much less a colony of them, unless there has been exposure to a zoonotic disease (such as rabies).

I’m compelled to point out that, statistically, mosquitos are a much greater threat to human health than bats. Bats directly benefit humans by consuming thousands of mosquitos and many other insects, some of which damage crops, and are an extremely important part of ecosystems as a whole.

The survival rate for rabies in humans is 50% if caught early, however symptoms take 3-4 weeks to develop and are frequently mistaken for the flu. Once symptoms begin, rabies is almost 100% fatal. Only 6 people worldwide in recorded history have been known to survive rabies without a vaccine. One of these survivors is Matthew Winkler of Lima, Ohio, who was bitten as a child in 1970. He is still living today.


Bats, hibernacula, and White Nose Syndrome (WNS)

Schneider's Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros speoris)
Schneider’s Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros speoris)

Flight is energetically expensive, and bats can neither feed around the clock to maintain their high metabolism, nor tolerate very cold temperatures. To conserve energy during periods when temperatures are unfavorable or food is unavailable, all North American bat species enter torpor.  During torpor an animal’s metabolism slows, its body temperature plummets, and its heart and breathing rates nearly stop. Torpor may last a matter of hours (i.e. overnight), or it may continue for weeks at a time—a state more commonly known as hibernation.

In North America bats may migrate south during the colder months as some birds do, or find a sheltered place to hibernate. Many bat species use caves as hibernacula (places where animals gather to hibernate) since the temperature stays relatively warm and constant (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit) during the winter, while other species use caves as daytime roosts. For some bat species, using caves as hibernacula has made them especially vulnerable to a new threat.

White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) is an infection caused by the aptly-named fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd. WNS has been devastating bat populations in the United States since its appearance in 2006 and is causing “the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in recorded history.” The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) and the Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) are two of 7 bat species in North America that have been heavily impacted.

WNS is named for the white patches that appear on the bat’s noses and other areas where skin is sparsely haired.

The origin of Pd was traced to a cave in New York, where it’s thought to have been introduced on the boots of a caver who had recently been spelunking in Europe, where the fungus is native. The fungus does infect European bats but they seem not to succumb to it, having co-evolved with the fungus over several million years.

Unlike our familiar bathroom mildew, Pd thrives in cool, damp environments, such as caves. During torpor a bat’s body temperature is barely distinguishable from its surroundings, making them the ideal substrate for the fungus to grow and thrive. It is spread from bat-to-bat primarily during the winter months when they are gathered close together. So far, the fungus is only killing bats that use caves as hibernacula, and not those that roost in caves during the daytime in summer. Cave roosting bats may be getting exposed to Pd, but since they are only torpid for a few hours at a time, the fungus can’t get established and dies once their body temperature returns to normal.

WNS detections by county, map updated 9/22/2015

In North American bats, the fungus changes the bats’ wintertime behavior by disrupting their torpor cycle. It is normal for bats to wake for short periods during the winter—in fact it’s when male bats seek out and mate with the unconscious females—but bats with WNS wake earlier, more often, and for longer periods. Sometimes they are found flying during the day or congregating near the hibernacula entrances. Ultimately infected bats die due to dehydration, starvation and exposure before spring, having burned up all of their fat reserves during these wakening periods. The fungus also eats holes in their wing membranes.

The infection is easily visible under UV light.

WNS was first recorded in Ohio in Lawrence County in 2010 and has been found in 18 counties since that time. In 2013 a hibernaculum in Lawrence County experienced an 80% population decline within a single year. Because most bats produce just one pup a year, populations hit heavily by WNS may take many years, if not decades to recover. One study conducted in 2010 suggested that if current trends continue the Little Brown Bat—our most common species—will become extinct in 16 years. (So they have 11 years left now.)

Northern Long-Eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis)
Northern Long-Eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis)

Thankfully, the news isn’t all bad. Researchers in recent months have discovered that a common soil bacterium Rhodococcus rhodochrous, when exposed to cobalt, releases volatile organic compounds that keep the fungus from multiplying. This property was discovered accidentally when researchers at Georgia State University were looking for a way to delay the ripening of bananas with R. rhodochrous, and noticed that the treated bananas also had a lower fungal burden. A colony of infected bats was captured last fall, treated, and placed back in their cave inside a special cage. In spring, half of the infected bats had recovered, and were released back into the wild.

While the news is certainly good, finding a way to treat infected bats efficiently (and cheaply)—i.e. without capturing every single infected individual and releasing them once cured—is another matter. The cave ecosystem is a delicate one in which thousands of microbial species exist together in a delicate balance, and there is concern that introducing R. rhodochrous may disrupt that balance by killing off benign or beneficial fungi. Extensive testing will be necessary before bat caves can be “bombed” with the stuff wholesale, but in the meantime, artificial caves such as abandoned mines or bunkers, having no ecosystems to disrupt, can be inoculated against Pd. Some artificial caves have already been constructed specifically for bats and have successfully hosted hibernating bats.

Below: An Australian Flying Fox wildlife rescuer works hard to save a whole lot of what resembles furry baby dragons.


What can you do to help?

I’m so glad you asked! There are many resources online where you can learn about bats and directly help support and fund their conservation:


Just in time for October!

This month, be sure to check out an exhibit at the Ohio Statehouse featuring some of OHC’s bat specimens!

The exhibit under construction. Photo by Lesley Poling
The exhibit under construction. Photo by Lesley Poling


It’s NaCl – sodium chloride! Answer to Freak of the Week #38

Specimens of halite.
Specimens of halite.

Good job readers! Everyone recognized these crystals as salt (sodium chloride – NaCl), seen here in its original form as halite – also sometimes called rock salt. Halite is generally colorless or white but may appear in a variety of colors, depending on the amount and type of impurities. Note the orange-colored specimen in the photo. We mentioned that halite can be identified by its salty taste, however you don’t want to go around tasting unknown minerals! Some minerals that resemble halite can be toxic. Or if it IS a specimen of halite, as you might find in a classroom or museum, it may have been handled by who knows how many people! If geologists need to test for halite by using the taste method, they will lick their finger, rub the mineral, then taste their finger, thereby vastly limiting the amount of material actually ingested.

Halite - backlit to show color.
Halite – backlit to show color.
Halite can be found in areas such as the Great Salt Lake and Searles Lake, California, where it crystalizes out of evaporating brine lakes. It can also be found underground where large salt lakes and ancient seas have evaporated millions of years ago. And halite can be found right here in Ohio! For instance, underneath Cleveland is a huge salt deposit that is currently being mined for rock salt for highways.

Although halite is mainly sodium chloride, table salt is not just halite that is ground up. Most table salt is refined from the original material by first dissolving it in water, then other minerals in the salt are precipitated out, and finally it is re-evaporated. If ingredients such as iodine or anti-caking agents are to be added, it is done during the refining process.

So the next time you’re putting salt on your dinner, just think that you‘re consuming salt that probably was part of a prehistoric sea! We have a nice specimen of halite on exhibit in the mineral section of the Natural History Mall at the Ohio History Center. So come on down and check it out, along with the other amazing minerals on display!

Upcoming workshop on plant collecting, held at Cedar Bog.

A mounted herbarium specimen
A mounted herbarium specimen

Are you interested in learning how to collect and mount plant specimens for scientific or educational purposes, or for personal use!? Then attend the upcoming workshop at Cedar Bog Nature Preserve on “Mounting and Storing Plants” on Saturday, July 11th at 10 AM! Conducted by David Dyer, Curator of Natural History, this two-hour workshop will cover the ethics of plant collecting, methods of pressing and drying specimens, use of archival materials, and different methods of mounting plant specimens. A properly collected, mounted and stored specimen will last for hundreds of years! Over 130 specimens collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition across North America still survive after over 200 years. The workshop will have a hands-on approach and participants will be able to practice mounting dried plant specimens.

The cost is $10, and for Ohio History Connection members or Cedar Bog Association members it is $5. To register, call 937-484-3744 or email
For more information on Cedar Bog, click here.

Preparing herbarium specimens - photo by Jennifer Cross.
Preparing herbarium specimens – photo by Jennifer Cross.

Beautiful crystals! Freak of the Week #38

Freak of the Week #38
Freak of the Week #38

This Freak of the Week is a mineral, can you identify it!? But it’s not totally fair to ask you what it is by only seeing photos. If you were holding this mineral in your hand you would notice a distinctive feel. Furthermore, it is one of the few minerals that you can actually identify by it’s taste! Any ideas what it might be!? To give you an idea of scale, the larger specimen is about 4 x 3.5 inches.

Closer view of the larger crystal.
Closer view of the larger crystal.

Backlit mineral, to show color.
Backlit mineral, to show color.

Horse teeth! Answer to FoW #37

Horse teeth
Horse teeth

Several of you recognized that these two teeth are from a horse. Horse teeth are very distinctive; note the squareish shape of the chewing (occlusal) surface of the tooth. In side view, this gives the tooth an overall rectangular appearance. These are upper premolars (PM2 & PM3); lower cheekteeth will have a more rectangular occlusal surface. A “tall” tooth like this, with a high crown, is called “hypsodont”. This means that the enamel of the tooth extends down the length of the tooth, well past the gumline. In the side view (below) I drew in the approximate location of the gumline, about one-quarter of the way down from the occlusal surface. This type of tooth is different than a low-crowned tooth, such as in humans, dogs, cats, etc., where the enamel stops at the gumline.

Gumline in high-crowned (hypsodont) horse teeth.
Gumline in high-crowned (hypsodont) horse teeth.

Also you can see how complicated the cusp pattern is in the top photo! There are ridges of enamel running down the length of occlusal surface, and some of the ridges are infolded and run across the tooth surface as well. This is called a lophodont crown pattern, and is found in mammals that are primarily grazers. If you’re eating coarse vegetation such as grasses all day long, you need a tooth with a tough occlusal surface made up of ridges of very hard enamel. Grasses contain a large number of phytoliths, microscopic granules of silica, which are very abrasive and can wear down a tooth pretty quickly. So a hypsoodont tooth is an adaptation to a grazing diet because of the phytoliths in ….

Recent research has shown that the adaptation of a high-crowned tooth probably happened as a result of the large amount of grit ingested from the soil when grazing, rather than from the grass itself! Paleontologists looked at when the extensive grasslands originated in the Great Plains of North America, and discovered that high-crowned teeth evolved in different mammal groups either millions of years before or after the grasslands developed. So the teeth likely didn’t evolve in response to the abrasive grass but from another cause, the grit itself! Think of how dirty your hands get when weeding your garden or lawn, and imagine you’re eating that stuff! There’s a lot of grit and minerals in the soil that would wear down even the hardest material in an animal’s body: tooth enamel.

So back to our two teeth; how do we know that these aren’t from a cow, cows are grazers and have high-crowned dentition!? Well, if we compare the crown pattern of cattle teeth and horse teeth we can see the difference (below). Cattle have a selenodont crown pattern which means that the crown is composed of a series of “half moon” shapes, called selenes, which run the length of each tooth. If you know your Greek mythology (which I don’t!), Selene is the goddess of the moon.

Upper toothrow of domestic cattle
Upper toothrow of domestic cattle

Upper toothrow of a horse
Upper toothrow of a horse

OK, we’ve established that they are horse teeth but Bob brought up a good point: how old are they!? We know that horses lived in Ohio during the Ice Age, and became extinct in North America after the end of the Pleistocene. They were then introduced back into North America by Europeans at about 1500 A.D. and have been here ever since. Because the modern horse and the Pleistocene horse are so similar morphologically, they are very difficult to separate – especially by just a tooth or two. Documented Pleistocene horse remains from Ohio are pretty rare, so most bones and teeth discovered are probably from the modern horse. We would have to find horse bones in Pleistocene deposits to prove that they are indeed from the Ice Age, and we’d have to be sure that it’s not a modern horse that was simply interred into Pleistocene sediments! So the next time you’re out horsin’ around, keep your eye out for these distinctive looking teeth!

Big teeth! Freak of the Week #37

What are these teeth from? Freak of the Week #37
What are these teeth from? Freak of the Week #37

This is the time of the year that people are out working in their gardens or digging in their fields. Sometimes bones or even individual teeth are found, and are brought to the museum for identification. If you came across teeth like these, would you know what they are from!? These are pretty big teeth too; the scale in the photos will show you that the teeth are over an inch wide and about 3 inches long. Put your answer in the Reply box below.

Side view of the teeth.
Side view of the teeth.

You “knee-d” to know this! Answer to Freak of the Week #36

Elk, with joints labelled
Elk, with joints labelled

Bison, with joints labelled
Bison, with joints labelled

Great Blue Heron - note that the femur is concealed under the wing and feathers but I marked its location in white.
Great Blue Heron – note that the femur is concealed under the wing and feathers but I marked its location in white.

I couldn’t trick our astute readers with this question! You are all correct, those are indeed ankles and the knees do actually bend forward. Sometimes people get confused because the upper limb bone of the hind and forelimb, the femur and humerus respectively, sometimes gets “lost” in the mass of the body. That, combined with the fact that many animals have extended the length of their feet and now walk on either their toes or on the ends of their hoofs, makes it appear that the ankle is actually the knee!

Both the elk and bison are considered “unguligrade” meaning that they walk on their hooves. The keratin hooves encase the last toe bone, so basically they are walking on their tip-toes! This means that most of the foot is actually off the ground and the heel bone (calcaneus) projects to the back of the animal, and can look like a “backward knee”! Sometimes this is easier to see on the skeleton:
Feet of mammals

Why did some animals evolve such a system? For speed! The elongated leg and fused bones of the foot provides for greater speed in a forward direction. Notice how many of the prey species are unguligrade, such as deer, elk, moose, pronghorn, bison, etc. while many of the carnivores (canids, felids, etc.) are digitigrade – meaning that they run on their toes and not just on the last digit.

“Why do deer knees bend backwards!?” Freak of the Week #36


Here is a little bit different Freak of the Week for you! It’s a question that I’ve been asked several times, so I thought I’d put it out there for you to ponder: “Why do deer knees bend backwards?” It’s not just deer, but the question can be asked of elk (which is really just a large species of deer), bison, cattle, horse, or any other large ungulate. In fact, this apples to most birds too! See the photo below of the Great Blue Heron. How would you answer this question!?

Great Blue Heron - © Frank Schulenburg / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Great Blue Heron – © Frank Schulenburg / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Return of the Snakes

Have you been to Serpent Mound yet? If you needed an excuse to visit this iconic OHC site, I’m here to give you one: The Return of the Snakes, a family-friendly event run by our site parter, the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System on June 27 from 10-4.

The largest collection of Ohio’s native reptiles and amphibians ever gathered in our state will be displayed at Serpent Mound, while teaching about their natural history, ecology, and conservation challenges.

Special Events

  • Ohio’s native reptiles and amphibians on live display (don’t worry – both you and the animals will be completely safe).
  • For Adults: Presentations every hour by Ohio’s finest researchers & field naturalists – Ohio’s endangered reptile and amphibian species, identification, and natural history.
  • For Kids: Toad feeding, turtle pool, games, stories, and crafts. Touch a real live snake! Jr. Herpetologist hike for budding naturalists (please pre-register on the website).

Event Schedule:

Directions to Serpent Mound:


We hope to see you there!



Leave Wildlife in the Wild!

Deer fawn - photo by ForestWander Nature Photography.
Deer fawn – photo by ForestWander Nature Photography.
It’s springtime, which means it’s also time for the annual reminder from our friends at the Division of Wildlife – Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources: enjoy wildlife from a distance and leave young animals in the wild! At this time of year, we might see baby squirrels on the ground or a deer fawn hiding alone in the underbrush. It’s tempting to intervene but wildlife officials remind us that:
“Many adult wild animals will leave their young offspring alone while they forage for   food, or to divert the attention of potential predators away from the more vulnerable young. When young animals are discovered with no adults in sight, the adult is often nearby waiting for people to leave the area before they retrieve their young.”

Baby_birds_in_a_nest_in_a_tree_in_NJThey also dispel the myth that if humans handle a young animal then the parents will no longer take care of it. If humans disturb a nest, the young and the nest material should be replaced as close as possible to the original location. But generally “only licensed wildlife rehabilitators, working under special permits issued by the ODNR Division of Wildlife, may possess and care for native wild animals”.

You can read the full article here.