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Bats: Shedding new light on old myths - October 3, 2013

Bats have fascinated humans since the dawn of time. Throughout history there have been numerous stories, drawings and movies about bats and some common myths associated with them. Between Batman, vampires, Nosferatu and other mythical characters, it’s easy to see where the confusion comes from regarding what bats do for our ecosystem and how important they are.

Maryland has 10 species of bats that all lead varied lives. Some species live in Maryland all year long, and some only migrate through here during the spring and fall months. All bat species that reside in Maryland eat insects, and they are voracious eaters for their size. A single healthy bat can eat upwards of 50 percent of its body mass in insects every night, while nursing females will eat up to 100 percent of their body mass in insects in order to provide for their young.

This means that depending on the bat, they can eat anywhere between 2,000-5,000 insects every night! And they are not just eating moths either, bats in Maryland have a wide variety of prey insects including crickets, mosquitoes, beetles, cicadas, ants, mayflies, stoneflies, termites and many other insect species.

All bats belong to the order Chiroptera, which basically means “hand-wing.” Their hand is actually their wing, you can see the fingers on the end, and they are the only mammals that can truly fly; flying squirrels glide using extra skin and long, high jumps.

Some of the most common bat species that reside in Maryland year long include:

» Little Brown Bat, which is one of the most commonly sighted species. This bat gets its name from its appearance. It has dark brown fur and only grows to around 3.5 inches with a wingspan of 9-11 inches.

» Silver Haired Bat has dark black fur tipped with silver, giving it its common name, along with small, blunt ears.

» Tricolored Bat is smallest bat in Maryland, easily identified by its tri-colored fur with a dark brown base, a pale yellow middle and a darker tip.

» Big Brown Bat is one of the larger bats in Maryland. This bat has copper-brown fur and dark black wings, ears and face.

The Red bat, Hoary bat and Evening bat all migrate through Maryland throughout the year. However they will not stay in Maryland for more than a few months before continuing with their migration.

Between 2009 and 2013, there have been 151 confirmed rabies cases in multiple animal species in Worcester County. This past year was the first confirmed report of a bat with rabies, a singular bat that was caught, tested and found positive. During this time period there have been 123 cases of rabid raccoons, 16 cases of rabid foxes, 2 cases of rabid skunks, 4 cases of rabid opossums, 2 cases of rabid groundhogs and even 4 cases of rabid cats.

That means that over the past four years, you were statistically more likely to come in contact with a cat with rabies than a bat with rabies, yet due to people’s fear of bats, this one case has drawn a lot of attention.

Bats are not asymptomatic carriers of rabies, which means they can only transmit the virus when they have become sick with the disease themselves. During this stage, a bat’s behavior can be abnormal. Some abnormal behavior includes finding the bat on the ground, activity during the day, or the bat may be unable to fly. The most common way people are bitten by bats is when they pick them up off the ground with bare hands. Like any other wild animal any bat, whether it is sick or healthy, will bite in self-defense if handled, so please leave them where they are.

Reports of rabies in bat populations are uncommon. Statistically, more people are killed by lightning strikes and dog attacks than rabid bats. Silver haired bats, big brown bats and eastern small footed bats are the only bat species in Maryland that have had recorded cases of rabies transmission to people. Of all these species, the only one that regularly inhabits houses in Maryland is the Big Brown Bat. While the Little Brown Bat is the most frequent user of bat boxes in the United States, it has not been documented to to have transmitted rabies to humans or pets.

At the 29th annual North American Symposium on Bat Research, 250 bat researchers from the United States, Canada and Mexico voted “...unanimously in support of a resolution stating that they find no credible support for the hypothesis that undetected bites by bats are a significant factor in transmitting rabies to humans... In our collective experience, bats seldom are aggressive, even when sick, and humans typically feel and recognize any bites they receive ... The undetected bite hypothesis is not supported by evidence, and it should not drive public policy nor public health responses.”

Because of their association with scary monsters, diseases and the night time, bats have unfairly earned a bad reputation but by shedding more light onto these delightful little mammals we can see there are no reasons to be afraid and we should cherish these ecologically important animals.


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