Moment of Science: Bats

They can be smaller than a penny, or as wide as a human, and they’re the only mammals that can fly: BATS!

*Many people see them as a nuisance at best and a horror movie subject at worst… clearly, they need better publicists. In fact, bats help keep the mosquito population in check, eating up to 1200 an hour… plus, they help pollinate over 700 of our favorite crops. Only three out of 1400 hundred species of bats actually drink blood… and even then, they’re well south of us, as the US only has about 40 bat species.

*You’ve heard of being “blind as a bat”… misleading! Every single one of these species can see… it’s just that some of them have much better developed eyes than others. As a result, about 70% of them use a cool little trick called “echolocation” to help them get around. If you’ve ever yelled across a canyon or maybe even the dome at the Capitol building, you’ve made some pretty good echoes yourself. You yell, and project that sound wave… it bounces back, and you hear it what seems to be a split second later. Sound travels in air at 767 miles an hour, with a bit of wiggle room for temperature, pressure and humidity. You can use that info to calculate how far away you are from the wall or object in question — just like Doppler radar with rain, snow and hail. Bats don’t exactly have calculators handy, so they have to compensate — whether by contracting their voice box or clicking their tongues. While closing in on prey, they emit those sounds over 160 times a second to determine their surroundings — and while most of their frequencies are undetectable to the human ear, you can still hear some clicks in a large enough group. The sound bounces off the object — or prey — and the bat can detect differences in position, size, speed, direction, practically any useful information, all to end up with a late-night snack.

*If you ever want to see a colony in person, head down to Congress Street in Austin, Texas. There’s a colony some 1.5 million strong, a few blocks from the state capitol, where bats fly out from underneath this bridge almost every night from March to November. The world’s largest colony is just down the road near San Antonio, with nearly 20 million bats calling a cave there, home.

*A final note: Even their droppings are useful for humans. Bat guano used to be the Lone Star State’s largest mineral export before they drilled for oil, and serves as a great fertilizer — kind of comes full circle on the pollination thing.

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