6 Bat Myths Busted: Are They Really Blind?

This Halloween, we're quashing rumors about the maligned mammal.
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A fruit bat hangs with its wings folded on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.

Bats tend to get off on the wrong wing with us humans. So in honor of National Bat Week, we're clearing up some myths about the world's only flying mammal.

For starters, bats are not nefarious creatures, as they're often portrayed around Halloween, said Rob Mies, executive director of the Michigan-based Organization for Bat Conservation. (Read more about efforts to better bats' reputations.)

They're actually altruistic, Mies said, and have been known to share food with other bats. Vampire bats, for instance, will regurgitate blood for bats who didn't get to feed.

National Geographic caught up with Mies at the Orlando Science Center's Bats: Myths and Mysteries exhibit—which was supported by his organization—to debunk some of the most persistent bat legends.

They vant to suck your blood.

Vampire bats weigh only two ounces, and while these Central and South American natives have been known to bite people, they primarily feed on cattle in a way Mies compares to a mosquito.

"They lick about a spoon's worth of blood, and have an anticlotting enzyme in their saliva that helps keep the blood flowing," he said. (See "Vampire Bats Have Vein Sensors.")

That enzyme is being used to develop anti-blood-clotting medication called ... wait for it ... draculin.

They're "blind as a bat."

This one is particularly untrue: Bigger bats "can see three times better than humans," Mies said.

They're also sensory masters: The large ears of small bats help them echolocate, or use sound waves that bounce off objects like a natural sonar. (See "'Whispering' Bat Evolved to Trick Prey.")

Bats get stuck in your hair.

It might be the way bats fly that make them look like they're attacking your head.

Bats hang upside down from their roosts, so the small fliers need to drop down to "get some lift and start to flap," Mies said.

So though it may appear the animals are swooping down on you, they're not. (Related: "7 Bug and Spider Myths Squashed.")

"There's no bat that makes a nest," Mies added—and certainly not in your coiffure.

Bats don't matter.

Mies doesn't mind if you think bats are blind or have hair fetishes, but "when people think that bats aren't worth anything, that's the biggest problem."

For instance, "bats are one of the key seed dispersers to regenerate a healthy rain forest," Mies said.

When fruit bats eat, the seeds are spread via guano, a spiffy word for bat poop. A 1999 study showed that 300 plants species rely on Old World fruit bats to spread, and these bats "have the potential to disperse seeds hundreds of kilometers."

Enjoy bananas? Avocados? Margaritas? Thank a bat. Like bees, bats are pollinators, Meis said, and the U.S. Forest Service says that bats are responsible for the pollination of 300 fruits plus agave, which is used to make tequila. Cheers to that. (Related: "Beyond Bees: 4 Surprising Facts About Pollination.")

Last, the Center for Biological Diversity credits bats with providing "nontoxic pest-control services totaling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year," with each bat chowing down on a couple of thousand bugs every single night.

"They're so important economically to us, it's shocking," Mies said.

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Thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats swarm from a cave opening in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

All bats are rabid.

Both the Organization for Bat Conservation and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that of bats captured for testing, only 5 to 6 percent test positive for rabies.

Since sick bats are more likely to be caught, the percentage is likely lower in the overall bat population. (Watch celebrities Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, and Zack Snyder talk about why it's important to help bats.)

That said, as with any wild animal, don't handle bats unless it's necessary.

Bats are an evil nemesis.

Nope ... bats have an evil nemesis: white-nose syndrome.

This cold-loving fungus grows on U.S. bats while they hibernate, causing them to use up their body fat so they starve before the winter is over, Mies said.

According to the Organization for Bat Conservation, white-nose syndrome has killed 5.7 million bats in the northeastern U.S. since 2006. (See "Bats May Be Wiped Out by Fungus in U.S. Northeast.")

One way to help bats is by putting up a bat house: They'll have a place to live, and you may never have to buy mosquito repellent again.

Tell us—what do you want to know about bats?

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