By Catherine Colbert

Bats have historically gotten a bad rap as rabid, blood-thirsty creatures. While it’s agreed that the very thought of them conjures up vivid images of Béla Lugosi-style Dracula flicks, a growing body of research proves the mammals are beneficial to the environment in several ways.

Bats are chemical-free exterminators. A National Geographic profile on bats calls them “nature’s own bug zappers.”

The pint-size creatures also spend their time pollinating and feeding on crop-damaging bugs. “Worldwide, bats are important pollinators, dispersers of seeds, and help to control insects, including serious crop pests,” says Barbara French, a biologist and Science Officer for Bat Conservation International (BCI), located in Austin, Texas.

“Each summer, a colony of 150 big brown bats can protect farmers from up to 33 million rootworms, which are serious crop pests. Many bats feed on moths. The moths lay eggs that develop into caterpillars, like corn earworms and army worms, which feed on an amazing variety of crops,” says French. “Important agricultural crops, such as bananas, breadfruit, mangoes, cashews, dates, and figs, rely on bats for pollination or seed dispersal. And bats are critical for rain forest regeneration,” asserts French.

Bats have become an increasingly popular topic of study – akin to snakes, spiders, and sharks – but the species is somewhat elusive, still, to scientists. “We cannot tell you how many bats there are,” says French. “They have been one of the least studied mammals.”

Scientists and advocates from around the world converged in Austin in 1982 to join bat expert Dr. Merlin Tuttle in laying a foundation for BCI. The group, which is supported by more than 14,000 members in 70 countries, was hungry to dispel myths about bats and focus its efforts on bat initiatives related to conservation, education, and research.

Since BCI set foot in Austin nearly 25 years ago, its headquarters city has been dubbed the Bat Capital of America, named primarily for the vast colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge downtown and for the city’s affection for the mammal that on average weighs about an ounce. There’s even an annual bat festival. While the Congress Avenue bats are the focal point for twilight bat-watching during late summer months, the largest congregation of bats around is kept under wraps. Bats have been coming to the Hill Country’s Bracken Cave every spring for more than 10,000 years, says BCI. They meet there to breed and raise their young.

Like Batman, the organization attempts to closely guard the location of its Bracken Bat Cave to protect its bats. It allows mostly BCI-members-only tours. Located 20 miles northeast of San Antonio, Bracken Bat Cave and Nature Reserve spans nearly 700 acres and is home to some 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. “The bats at Bracken Cave eat approximately 200 tons of insects each night during the summer months,” says French. “A single little brown bat can catch more than a thousand mosquito-sized insects in a single hour.”

Despite their utility, bat’s ranks are depleting. There’s a movement among bat aficionados to help these mammals get off the endangered species list, managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The IUCN’s 2008 list documents several varieties of bats that are either threatened or endangered.

“Bats are likely among the endangered due to diminishing habitat,” says French, “and misconceptions that result in the destruction of bats and their roosts around the world.”

(Photo credit: Bat Conservation International)

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