October 26, 2020
Debunking the Bat’s Bad Rap
WHY THIS ENDURING SYMBOL OF SPOOKY SEASON
IS WORTHY OF ADMIRATION RATHER THAN FEAR
Considering everything 2020 has thrown at us thus far, Halloween shouldn’t seem all that scary this year. It is, however, the perfect time to shine a spotlight on one of the animal kingdom’s most misunderstood members: the humble bat. These fascinating flying mammals have gotten quite the bad rap over the years, mostly due to poor representation in popular culture. Today, with some helpful facts from our amazing Tropical Discovery keepers, we’ll take this opportunity to set things right.
Creatures of the Night
Long before Edward and Bella—or Lestat and Louis, for you old folks—were nibbling on one another’s necks, vampires have been enchanting the public with their universal immortal appeal. Vampire folklore reaches back millennia, populating myths across Mesopotamian and Hebrew as well as ancient Greek and Roman culture with demonic entities and blood-sucking spirits. Likewise, bats, as creatures of the night, had long been associated with witchcraft in European tradition.
But it wasn’t until Bram Stoker published Dracula, in 1897, that bats were linked to vampires for the first time—a connection forever cemented by the iconic 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi. The one-two media punch of a best-selling book followed by a popular film simultaneously increased the world’s fascination with vampires and fed powerful misconceptions about their animal familiars.
No Reason for Fright
In reality, there are about 1,200 species of bat—about 20% of all the mammals on the planet—and only three of them actually drink blood. In general, bats are docile creatures that are an important part of the ecosystems that support them. Around 70% are insectivores; the other 30% are frugivorous. All of the 18 bat species native to Colorado are insect eaters; one species, the little brown bat, can catch and eat up to 10 mosquitos in less than a minute! To recap: bats are actually ridding your world of blood-suckers.
Bats at Denver Zoo
If you’ve never visited Denver Zoo’s bat caves, you’ll find them near the entrance to Tropical Discovery. We house three species within our two caves, most of which are Seba’s short-tailed bats. Weighing in at a little over an ounce, these tiny mammals are native Central and South America. Like all frugivores, Seba’s short-tailed bats play an important role in their native ecosystems as pollinators and seed dispersers—ingesting thousands of fruit seeds each night, and spreading them throughout the forest.
Seba’s short-tailed bats are a social species, usually roosting in caves or hollow trees in groups of 10–100. In fact, Denver Zoo’s bats are SO social that ongoing breeding can make it difficult to get an accurate count of our colony. Recently, our keepers were filming the bats as they enjoyed their meal of fresh melon when they noticed something unusual: a pure-white figure among the fast-moving brown bodies.
Meet Shikaka, the White Bat
Initially, we believed Shikaka might have albinism, an absence of melanin: the protein that gives skin, feathers, hair and eyes their color. Albino animals are typically pure white with red eyes. Leucism, by contrast, is a partial loss of pigmentation; leucistic animals can either be pure white or have patchy coloration, but their eyes are not typically affected. Shikaka’s dark eyes make our little Halloween angel a likely candidate for leucism.
Bottom line: White bats are extremely rare, and we were thrilled to find one in our midst. See if you can spot Shikaka—named for the great white bat in Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls—during your next visit to Denver Zoo. And while you’re here, try to picture all the beautiful flowers, plants and fruits that the world’s 1,200 bat species are propagating...along with all the mosquito bites they're preventing.
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