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Are bats dangerous? Don’t they carry rabies? -Naomi Matzner, Charleston, W.Va.

Sheesh, and I thought snakes got a bad rap. Bats are second only to our serpent friends in inducing a state of unreasoning fear and panic in otherwise reasonable people. These winged mammals are long overdue for an image makeover. Would you feel any better if I told you that, just last year, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner declared the Virginia big-eared bat the official bat of the Commonwealth?

That was a largely symbolic PR attempt to gain awareness for the endangered species, which is confirmed in only four states: Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. There are about 2,000 big-eared bats in Virginia, and their habitat-limestone caves-is frequently threatened by vandalism or other human interference.

In fact, bats have more to fear from us than we from them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists more than half of the 43 bat species in North America as threatened or endangered. Cave-dwelling bats, in particular, experience rapid population declines when their habitat is impacted. Bats tend to return year after year to the same roosts and hibernation places, a tendency that makes them especially vulnerable to large-scale disturbance. Bats also are fond of roosting in trees, another type of habitat subject to loss or disturbance.

We should all worry about declines in bat populations. Bats eat tons of insects every single night, including ones considered harmful to humans, such as mosquitoes, and certain moths and beetles. Most of the species found in our area are insectivorous. They consume voraciously because of their high metabolisms and the energy expended in flight. Even a small bat can eat more than 1,000 insects in an hour.

By the way, contrary to popular belief, bats have excellent eyesight. The reason they can fly around in the dark and hunt insects so effectively is because of their ability to use echolocation, or high-frequency sound navigation. Using this highly evolved sonar system, bats make calls from their mouths or noses and listen to the echoes. Using sound waves, they can literally form images of objects as small as a human hair in their brains, much as we do from light waves reflected off of what we see.

Like many small mammals found in our area, bats do carry rabies. But here again, they have a bad reputation, out of proportion to the problem. A small percentage of bats, less than one half of one percent, contract the disease. Since 1990, only 48 U.S. residents have contracted rabies from bats, compared to 1,544 who contracted malaria, or 15,989 who contracted tuberculosis. Most cases of rabies resulted from human handling; bats tend to avoid people and bite only in self-defense.

As if bats didn’t have enough problems, a new threat has appeared on the horizon-literally. Dead bats have been found in the vicinity of wind turbines in the Appalachians. Aside from the merits of wind powe and its potential as a viable source of clean energy, the turbines themselves are killing bats, though the reasons for the unexpected bat mortality in the Appalachians are unclear (wind turbines in the West report few casualties). It’s going to take a concerted effort to come up with a solution. Bats deserve a little human foresight on their behalf.

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