7 Misconceptions About Bats

A spectacled flying-fox bat in Australia.
A spectacled flying-fox bat in Australia. / Connie Kerr/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Bats tend to get a bad rap in pop culture. Though they're often depicted as blood-crazed creatures of the night, they rarely attack humans. They're also incredibly beneficial to the environment and their appetite for pesky insects helps save the agriculture industry billions of dollars per year. We're debunking more myths about these so-called "rats with wings" below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Vampire bats suck blood.

Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and its subsequent movie adaptations were a hit with horror fans—but for bats, they were a PR disaster. The vampire story depicts its titular villain transforming into a bat in between feasting on his human victims. The animals had been associated with vampires since Europeans first found blood-drinking bats in the Americas around the 16th century, but Stoker may be responsible for solidifying the animal's monstrous reputation in the English-speaking world.

The perception that all bats are mini Draculas is obviously false. It’s true that vampire bats do exist, but they make up a small portion of the larger bat population: Of the 1300-plus species on earth, only three types of bats drink blood, and they live exclusively in Central and South America. If you do come across a white-winged, hairy-legged, or common vampire bat in the wild, there’s no need to break out the holy water. Vampire bats are mostly interested in birds and livestock. On the rare occasions when they do feed on humans, they drink only up to a tablespoon of blood.

Even though vampire bats rely on blood for their food and water, calling them blood-sucking would also be inaccurate. Unlike some hematophagous—or blood-eating—creatures like mosquitoes, vampire bats don’t suck blood directly from their prey. Instead, they create a small incision near an artery with their teeth and lap up the blood that pools on the skin. That would technically make bats blood-licking animals.

2. Misconception: Bats are pests.

A fruit bat enjoying a snack.
A fruit bat enjoying a snack. / Keith_Rose/iStock via Getty Images Plus

As mentioned, the vast majority of bats aren’t looking to make humans their snack. Most bats eat either fruit or insects, which is why they should be viewed as environmental heroes instead of pests. Fruit bats help disperse seeds and maintain plant life cycles in tropical ecosystems. Some bats drink nectar, which makes them pollinators in the same way that bees are.

Insectivorous bats benefit the environment in a different way. One bat can consume its bodyweight in bugs in a single night. Many of these insects would otherwise pose a threat to crops, and bats save the agriculture industry at least $3 billion per year. More bats in your backyard also means fewer insects around to ruin your summer nights outdoors.

Even vampire bats have something to offer humanity. Their saliva contains the aptly nicknamed protein Draculin, which prevents clotting—thus encouraging blood to flow freely from their preys’ wounds. Researchers have long been interested in this protein’s potential to break up blood clots in humans. According to a study published in the journal Toxins, vampire bats may even hold the key to a new treatment for high blood pressure. The venom of the common vampire bat has been found to contain a special class of blood pressure-regulating peptides, and it could possibly be used to treat hypertension, heart failure, and kidney disease.

3. Misconception: Bats get caught in human hair.

So bats won’t drain your blood, and they’re pretty good for the environment, but many people still duck and cover when they see one. That’s due to the misconception that bats tend to get tangled in human hair. Fortunately for your updo, getting tangled in a head of hair would be just as unpleasant for the bat as it would be for you. This idea may have actually originated as a way to discourage young women from going out at night. Regardless of whether it succeeded in keeping women at home, the myth has stuck around. Occasionally, bats do appear to swoop down toward humans, but it isn’t hair they’re after. The carbon dioxide you breathe out attracts insects, which in turn may attract a hungry bat. When this happens, the bat is able to use its excellent navigation skills to avoid a collision with your head.

4. Misconception: Bats are blind.

No, bats are not blind. This is one of the more prevalent myths surrounding them, and it may come from the fact that many bats use echolocation to hunt. When bats emit pulses through their mouth or nose, those sound waves travel forward and bounce off objects in the vicinity. By listening to the echoes of their calls, bats can approximate the size and shape of whatever's in front of them. If the object producing the echo is roughly the size and shape of an insect, the bat has likely found dinner. It then uses a rapid sequence of calls to locate its prey before diving in for the kill.

Echolocation makes hunting at night a lot easier, but it isn’t the only way bats assess their surroundings. Contrary to the phrase blind as a bat, bats have eyes that are well-adapted to seeing in the dark. Some use vision as their primary tool for locating food. Some bats’ eyes are actually sensitive enough to detect ultraviolet light, making them one of the more impressive sets of peepers in the animal kingdom.

5. Misconception: All bats hang upside-down.

Not all bats unwind like this.
Not all bats unwind like this. / CraigRJD/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Bats spend a lot of time upside-down, and for good reason—the position allows them to take off quickly when they need to. Compared to other flying animals like birds, bats are heavy relative to their lift capacity, which means they have a hard time taking off from the ground. Their solution is to kickstart flight by literally falling. Dropping from an upside-down position gives them the air and momentum they need to achieve liftoff.

At least that’s the case with most bats. We know of six bat species that don’t sleep hanging upside-down. Members of the Thyropteridae family in South America and the Myzopodidae family in Madagascar prefer to get cozy in large, unfurled leaves like those of a banana tree. When they crawl inside these tubes, they roost with their heads facing up. They use small suction cups on their wrists and ankles to secure themselves to the plant’s smooth interior. The young leaves mature and unfurl after a few days, and when they do, the bats are forced to find a new botanical sleeping bag to call home.

6. Misconception: Bats are rats with wings.

Though bats are generally small and furry, they aren't flying rodents. They belong to the order Chiroptera, which comprises about a fifth of the world's mammal species. The bats in this group are the only flying mammals on Earth (the only other living creatures capable of flight are birds and insects). Some so-called flying animals like flying squirrels technically get around by gliding, but bats are true flyers. They are also the fastest mammals ever recorded. A study published in 2016 found that bats can soar through the air at speeds reaching 100 miles per hour. That makes them faster than other mammals renowned for their speed, like cheetahs.

7. Misconception: All bats are harmless.

We've established that bats are not going to make you a member of the undead or dive-bomb your hair, but they aren’t totally harmless. According to the CDC, in the United States bats are the No. 1 source of rabies in humans. That doesn’t mean that every bat you see is infected, though. Bats account for only a third of the roughly 5000 animals that test positive for rabies each year, and worldwide, you are way more likely to get rabies from a dog than any other animal.

Among bats tested for rabies, only 6 percent carried the virus. That rate could be even lower in wild populations, as bats weak enough to be caught and brought to a lab are more likely to be sick to begin with. And even though bats are the top spreader of rabies here in the States, the chances of them giving you the disease are low. The U.S. records just one to three cases of rabies per year.

It's possible that bats account for a disproportionate number of those rabies cases because many people don't associate them with the disease. People may be more likely to worry about getting infected from a dog or raccoon bite than an encounter with a bat. The illness is usually fatal when left untreated, but it can also be prevented with a highly effective vaccine if it’s caught in time. The bottom line is that if you see a bat that looks like it might be sick, stay away from it. And if you come in contact with a bat or find one in your bedroom after sleeping there, see a doctor right away.