Mammalian Aviators

     There are nearly 1,000 species of bats in the world, which amounts to approximately a quarter of all mammal species. They are found everywhere except in the most extreme desert and Polar Regions. Bats are the only mammals that are capable of sustained flight. All bats fit into one of two groups, the Microchiroptera (typical bats) or the Megachiroptera (flying foxes). The flying foxes are named for their fox-like faces and are found only in the Old World tropics.


     Bats are highly varied in appearance and size. Some have long, angora-like fur, ranging in color from bright red or yellow to jet-black or white. One species, the naked bat, is furless while others are so brightly patterned that they are known as butterfly bats. Others have enormous ears, or leaf-shaped noses, or intricate facial features, which play a sophisticated role in navigation. The bumblebee (or hog-nosed) bat of Thailand, weighing one-third the weight of a penny, is the world’s smallest mammal. In contrast, some flying foxes have wingspans of up to six feet.

     Seventy percent of all bats are insect eaters. A few tropical species feed exclusively on fruit or nectar. Others are carnivorous, feeding on small vertebrates such as fish, frogs, mice, and birds. Vampire bats, of which there are three species, feed exclusively on blood. Bats are beneficial in that they play essential roles in keeping populations of night-flying insects in balance, including mosquitoes. In the tropics, the seed dispersal and pollination activities of fruit- and nectar-eating bats are vital to the survival of rain forests, with some acting as keystone species in the lives of plants crucial to entire ecosystems. For example, only bats pollinate the Baobab tree of African savannahs, which is often referred to as the Tree of Life because it is so important to the survival of numerous wildlife species. In the Old World tropics alone, more than 300 plant species are known to rely on the pollinating and seed dispersal services of bats.

     Among the slowest reproducing mammals on earth, bats average only one young per year. But they are long-lived, with some surviving for more than 34 years. Some tropical bats engage in elaborate courtship displays. Male epauleted bats sing and flash large fluffs of white shoulder fur to attract mates. Male crested bats perform a spectacular display by expanding long hairs on top of the head similar to a peacock spreading its tail.

     Bats are not blind, and many have excellent vision. Like dolphins, most bats navigate by echolocation, which involves the use of high-frequency sounds. Using sound alone, bats can "see" everything but color. In echolocation a series of short, high-pitched sounds are emitted. These sounds travel out away from the bat and then bounce off objects and surfaces in the bat’s path, creating an echo. The echo returns to the bat giving it a sense about what is in its path. This echolocation system is so accurate that bats can detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as a human hair.

     Just as the bat’s echolocation shows it what is in its path and guides it safely through the darkness, so the Word of God guides the Christian in the path he should follow in this world of sin and darkness. "Thy word [is] a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." Psalm 119:105. "This book is God’s great director. . . . It flashes its light ahead, that we may see the path by which we are traveling . . . ." My Life Today, 27. "The path where God leads the way may lie through the desert or the sea, but it is a safe path." Patriarchs and Prophets, 290.

David Arbour