A CLOUD OF BATS By Deborah Painter


The English language has a huge number of words to apply to a collection of specific animals.  If you are referring to a large gathering of bats it is a camp, colony or cloud of bats.

South Africa has a good many clouds of bats and a good many different species.  In fact there are 55 species of bats in two groups, the insectivores or insect eaters and the fruit bats.

The insectivores are the most abundant in terms of species, and they include the generally small bats with large complicated ears that use echolocation.   Their eyes are small since they do most of their hunting at twilight when their prey are most active.  They do not need large eyes since they find their way in the dark by making sounds that bounce off objects and listening for the echo.  The most prominent features of their faces, other than their large ears are their large nostrils, relatively flat noses and large mouths for eating all those harmful insects like termites and mosquitoes that plague us.  The butterfly bat (Chalinolobusvariegatus) is an example of an insect eater.It is a small animal of approximately 11 centimeters in length when mature. The fruit eaters, often called flying foxes, are the largest bats, with simple ears and large eyes.  Of course they are not foxes but they certainly look like cuddly foxes with wings! Egyptian rousettes or Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettusaegyptiacus) are approximately 16 centimeters in total length when fully grown.They feed primarily at night on softfruits. A few fruit bats use echolocation and these include this species of fruit bat.  Thus, the Egyptian fruit bat can and does inhabit caves, but most of the fruit bats and do not use echolocation and thus live in trees. Egyptian fruit bats also pollinate flowers.  An interesting difference between the insect eating bats and the fruit bats is that the fruit bats have two claws on each wing.

Bats like to rest in holes in large trees like this one. Credits: Deborah Painter

Bats have been maligned because humans historically have not understood them.  The unusual looking wings of bats, their penchant for hanging upside down with wings folded, and the ability of some to hibernate have no doubt contributed to prejudices against bats.Some people have spread superstitions about bats that are totally unfounded.  These include the notions that bats will nest in one’s hair; yes, I heard that one when I was a child and knew it was rubbish.  Some objections to bats have some validity; fruit growers do not want to lose fruit crops to the flying foxes and thus seek to destroy them.The good the many species of South African bats do for humankind is

Many barns host bats that help keep insect populations under control. This is very good for cattle and horses. Credits: Deborah Painter

tremendous, including plant pollination, distribution of fruit bearing plants and control of injurious insects.   Some bats can devour up to 500 insects each night. These include termites and mosquitoes. Bats do not seek out humans to bite them.  It is not advisable to pick up a bat without gloves since they do have the capacity to spread some diseases that humans also have.  Most bats avoid us, although they will sometimes live in the eaves of our timber structures such as barns and old houses.  Some bats like to roost under bridges.  For most species the preferred habitat is caves and holes in large trees.  Bats usually raise only one young at a time (occasionally there will be twins) and many species breed only twice per year.



Bats like forested habitats near bridges. Credits: Deborah Painter


Loss of habitat is the greatest threat to the South African bats.  Some people are trying to help bats by building bat houses. If you encounter a bat on the ground there are many things you can do to help it.  The African Bat Conservation web site has many helpful recommendations.  Visit their web site at http://www.africanbatconservation.org/aboutbats.html