photo credit: Humberto Dzib Tun

How to Handle Encounters with Bats During Your Travels

If you ever visit caves, old buildings, or ancient Maya pyramids, chances are, you’ll have encounters with bats. I personally love them. But many people are terrified of them.

Encounter in Yucatan

The first time I visited Uxmal and climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Magician (yes, I am old enough I can still remember climbing that pyramid), I met a Hungarian family on top. It was interesting that of all people from all over the world, the first people I meet on top were Hungarians. And the way I learned they were Hungarians was not that I overheard them enjoying the view or the pyramid. No, the first thing I heard from them was the mother yelling at her teenage son: ” don’t go inside; there could be bats there.”

Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
Bats live in the chamber on the top of the Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal

I have just walked out from the same room – in those days you could still walk in there – and, naturally, the kid wanted to explore. So, I was compelled to say “Yes, there are bats in there, but you can still go inside, they won’t hurt you. Just try to stay quiet, they are sleeping, don’t wake them.”

Probably not the smartest remark when I first encounter someone who speaks my language, and we are both in a foreign country, the first few people in the morning on top of the highest pyramid at a site. But I do have a problem with people judging bats (or any other creature they don’t understand).

Misconceptions about Bats

To be fair, growing up, I was taught to fear bats. Well, sort of. My grandma used bats to keep me inside after dark as a small child. We used to spend vacation time at her house, and she had a large garden, so we wanted to be outside all the time. Even after dark. The way she used to try to keep us inside was telling us we shouldn’t go outside because bats were out. As if it was self-explanatory that we should fear them. But somehow my parents must have neglected to teach us this self-explanatory fear. So I had to ask:

“Why is that a bad thing? Why should I care?”

“They Get Tangled in Your Hair”

“They will get tangled in your hair, and scratch your head as they try to fly away.” Or, another one, “They will scratch your eyes out.”

At least it wasn’t “they will suck your blood”. And at least she didn’t make it sound that they were purposely trying to hurt you. They might hurt you by accident, but it’s sill good to stay away from situations you might encounter them. While this explanation sounds believable, it is far fetched.

Contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind, they can see us, even in the dark. You know the expression “blind as a bat”. Well, I decided to take it as a compliment, and answer that it means I have better vision than most people. Besides being able to see in the dark, too.

And if for some reason a bat can’t see us, they can identify us with echolocation. They use this method of sending out sound waves to find prey – tiny bugs – and identify other objects as well.

Bats Perceived as Flying Mice in Many Parts of the World

While the traditional Hungarian word for bat is denevér, we have another word describing them, relating them to mice.

My grandma called a bat bőregér, which means leather mouse (bőr = leather + egér = mouse). As unique as Hungarian is, it’s not the only language that calls bats leather mice. In Latvia (siksparnis), and Estonia (nahkiir) bats are also leather mice.

The French call them bald mice, chauve souris.

In other parts of the world, they are classified as flying mice. In German, the name for a bat is fledermause, meaning flying mouse. They are also flying mice in Norwegian (flaggermus), Dutch (vleermuis), Swedish (fladdermus), Russian (letuchaya mysh).

In Spanish and a few other languages, bats are blind mice. The Spanish word murciélago is derived from the Latin caecus = blind + mus = mouse.

Apparently many nations agree that bats are actually mice. Flying, leathery, even blind mice. If we look strictly at their appearance, we understand why they are described as mice. Their tin furry bodies do resemble the rodent. Add the leathery-looking wings and the fact they fly in a seemingly erratic fashion explains all the descriptions. But are they really related to mice?

While they do fly, they are mammals, and they are bald, or leathery, they are not mice. In fact, they are more closely related to us, humans than to mice.

They belong in a class called Chiroptera, a word originating in ancient Greek, meaning hand-wing. If you ever saw even a representation of a bat, you know that their wings look like our hands. It’s like they have webbed hands that help them fly.

Bats Are Blind

I mentioned above that in Spanish for example, bats are called blind mice. We already established that they are not mice. And, contrary to popular belief (we call a person who can’t see well, “blind as a bat”), they are not blind, either.

Bats have small eyes with very sensitive vision, and they are able to see even in pitch dark, where we can’t. So why did people believe they were blind? It is probably because of their irregular flight pattern. Because people couldn’t see the bugs they follow, people used to assume that bats were blind and that’s why they were flying with such sudden changes of direction.

Bats Will Suck Our Blood

While some bats indeed feed on blood, they don’t feed on humans. They usually seek out sleeping barn animals, and they don’t even hurt them enough to wake them up. I imagine them a bit like mosquitoes, except they don’t hurt us. In fact, they don’t hurt their hosts, either.

Yes, vampire bats do exist. Out of the 1400 species of bats, three are vampire bats. And even those are far from the bloodsucking monsters people used to believe they were. They are some of the smaller bats, they live only in a few parts of Central and South America, and feed on sleeping cows, pigs and tapirs in the wild, without even waking them up.

Real Facts about Bats

Bats are in fact some of the most beneficial creatures, for humans and natural ecosystems. We know of more than 1400 species of bats, and they are all valuable in one way or another.

Most Species Eat Insects

For me, this would be enough to call them my best friends. Especially since I am extremely allergic to mosquito bites, I appreciate any creature that eats them. And since mosquitoes come out at dusk, the same time bats do… you get the picture. Bats are probably the mosquitoes’ worst enemy. They can eat up to 1000 of them in just an hour, and catch them in flight. That’s reason enough for me to consider them my best friends. When it comes to us, humans, mosquitoes are the creatures that drink our blood, while bats save us from them.

Personal feelings aside (though I suspect many of you agree with me), the insect-eating bats also help agriculture, by keeping the pest population in check. Maybe if we took care of our bats, we wouldn’t have to use pesticides…

Others Eat Fruit

Fruit bats help us in two ways, depending on what fruit they eat.

Some bats are pollinators.

How else would plants that blooming the night survive? Over 500 species of plants rely on bats to pollinate their flowers. These are all plants that bloom at night.

Some of these night-blooming plants are species of mangoes, agave, banana and even cocoa. We should thank the bats for our chocolate, among other things.

Others are seed dispersers

Like birds, bats carry seeds of some fruit as they eat and digest them. Then, they excrete the seeds farther away from the original tree. These seeds, already fertilized, germinate and grow into a new tree. This can be critical for some plants in the tropics. In fact, some tropical forests depend on bats for survival.

During Our Travels – Or at Home – We Will Have Encounters with Bats

We know of almost 1400 species of bats, and they live just about everywhere on Earth, except the extreme desert or polar regions. With so many of them, all over the world, chances are, we all see a few of them, both close to hime and during our travels.

We might or might not be aware of it, but if we go out at dusk, no matter where we are, we will see a bat – or more. But unless we know what we are looking at, we might not recognize them. After all, we can’t see clearly enough in the dark, and most bats are small and fly way above our head. No, they won’t get close enough to get tangled in our hair.

I learned to recognize bats from their flight patterns. And the fact that they come out when most birds are roosting. For a long time, I assumed the winged creatures flying in our back yard after dark were birds.

Only when I questioned why the birds would be out after dark, flying so erratically, and I watched them more closely did I realize that they were, in fact, bats.

Besides seeing them in my back yard, I’ve seen bats in unused, dark rooms of ancient Maya pyramids (when we could still enter them), in caves in Arizona and Mexico, and even hanging from trees, in Australia. I’ve seen tiny ones, and a colony of the largest ones, the flying foxes.

Traveling with young kids, we had to teach them about encounters with bats. Not because they would be naturally afraid of them, but they might (and once they did) startle them, causing them to wake up during the day and potentially get hurt.

Bat Encounters in Cobá

We’ve been traveling to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for almost three decades now; over twenty years with kids. Our main reason for these trips have always been exploring ancient Maya ruins. And our all-time favorite site has always been Cobá.

Room inside the Iglesia, we used to be able to visit.
Room inside the Iglesia that we used to be able to visit. It was filled with bats.

Before they closed down the Iglesia – the pyramid in the front – we used to walk into the rooms under the stairway. But we always knew to be extremely quiet in there. When we looked up into the ceiling, we noticed bat colonies sleeping there. Our kids knew of the bats, and each year we returned looked forward to seeing the bats. They knew the rules: be quiet, watch your step, and look up only when you weren’t walking.

At some point we put a red filter on a flashlight to shine it on them and see them without harming them or waking them up.

But when your kids are very young, chances are, one of them will wake up the bats. When my toddler forgot to use her indoor voice in one of the rooms, she startled and woke up a few of the bats. So we heard they high-pitched startled screams and watched them frantically flying around. Fortunately they settled back, as we stopped even moving and stayed quiet for a while.

Lesson learned: when you watch bats roosting during the day, please be very quiet around them, don’t shine a bright light on them, so you don’t wake them.

Bats in Underground Caves and Cenotes of Yucatan

During our travels in Mexico we’ve been in many underground caves filled with bats. Yes, we know the Maya call bats zots. We even learned to pronounce it right. That’s because we usually visit these caves and cenotes with Maya locals, and we try to communicate in their language (emphasis on “try”, but still.

Bats on top of the cave-cenote
Bats on top of a cave-cenote in Yucatan

In these caves and cenotes the bats add to the experience. They are not always sleeping in these caves, we see them flying around often.

Bats also seem to keep watch over ancient artifacts in the Balancanche Caves by Chichen Itza, where you can spot them surrounding the large chambers.

Bats in Yaxchilan

Since we love to explore ancient Maya ruins when we visit Mexico, it is naturally the place we see most bats. On our relatively recent trip to Yaxchilan we walked through a structure called Labyrinth, filled with bats (and spiders – but that’s a different story).

Being the first visitors at the site helped ensure we saw them and were able to make sure we didn’t disturb them, but still managed to take a picture.

Bat in the Labyrinth. Yaxchilan
One of the bats sleeping in the Labyrinth in Yaxchilan

Encounters with Bats in Arizona

As much as I love Mexico, I don’t need to travel that far to see bats. They live in Arizona, too, we can even see them in Phoenix. Arizona has 28 species of bats, all either insect eaters or pollinators, and they are protected by law (one of the things I like about my state).

Larger colonies live in caves in the state. Kartchner Caverns has a large colony of about 1500 bats living in their Big Room during the summer months. To protect them, the park closes down entrance to that part of the cave and turns off all the lights. Undisturbed, the bat colony is busy giving birth, raising their pups, teaching them to fly and hunt.

Phoenix even has a “bat cave”, where a colony of bats live during the summer months, in an abandoned storm drain.

It’s fun to see thousands of bats flying around, but we don’t need to go far to see them; we can sit outside for a while, watching the night sky after dusk. I have a night-blooming cactus, I’m sure it has something to do with them showing up in and around my house.

Encounters with the Gorgeous Flying Fox in Australia

The bats we see on a more regular basis are small. But there is one species of bats larger than all the rest. They are called flying foxes, because of their gorgeous color, resembling the orange-rust color of the fox. I was lucky enough to see a colony of them, in Australia.

Flying foxes sleeping
Flying foxes sleeping during the day

They used to roost at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney. When we visited Australia, almost fifteen years ago, we took the kids – nine, seven, and our youngest only a baby at nine months old at the time – to the Royal Botanical Garden. We didn’t expect to see bats there. We noticed them (or maybe one of the kids did) hanging from the trees. At first, we weren’t sure what they were, we’ve never seen bats that large.

We stayed late until closing time, to see them take off, but since the botanical gardens closed at dusk, we only saw a few of them take off. We returned a few times while we were in Sydney, not necessarily for the botanical gardens, but to see the flying foxes there.

They no longer roost at the Boranical Gardens, but you can still see them in other places in and around Sydney and Australia.

How to Handle Encounters with Bats

As I taught my own kids when they were younger, bats are amazing creatures, and not at all scary, but we need to respect them. Their screeching in fact can be scary when they get startled, woken from their sleep. Their unpredictable flight patterns might scare people accustomed to only watching birds fly. Bats fly so fast, and turn in sharp angles, you never know what to expect from them. But they don’t harm you or bother you if you don’t bother them.

Most of the time we encounter them during the day, while they are roosting, if we walk into a cave or abandoned building. We might even see them on tree branches on rare occasion. It’s important to not disturb them. They need their daytime sleep.

Walk quietly, whisper if you must talk, and if you use a flashlight, point it down, towards the ground. Or put a red filter on it if you want to point it on the bats to see them.

I knew about the red light from my childhood, when my dad used to lock himself in a walk-in closet with a red light, to develop the photos we used to take. Later, during star parties, astronomers advised us to use a red filter on our flashlights if we needed them to not disturb the dark. So, when we wanted to show our kids the sleeping bats inside a long-abandoned room of a pyramid, we used the same trick. It worked, we did not wake up the bats, while being able to see them in the pitch-dark.

While bats do not attack humans, in fact they will do anything to avoid conflict, in rare cases they might cause diseases. Though extremely rare, bats might carry rabies, and might transmit it if they bite. That’s why it is important not to touch bats with bare hands.

That’s the extreme, and very rare circumstance. Another health problem they may cause is histoplasmosis. Those of us who have cats and handle cat litter probably know about this disease; only dangerous if you get it while pregnant. Other wise it might cause flu-like symptoms, and go away on its own. It is caused by a fungus that grows in soil or dirt with animal droppings. Just like you need to be careful handling your kitty litter, don’t disturb areas where you see bat guano (bat droppings). To me, this is just simply common sense.

Learn More About Bats

To learn more about bats, visit the Bat Conservation International homepage. Since bat conservation is so important, in restoring a natural ecosystem, and even in preventing new pandemics, do your part in helping bats survive. And enjoy the encounters.

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