Going Batty

Author: Mike Cadman

Recently staff at Chundu Island found a Little free-tailed bat and posted a picture of it on the Seolo company WhatsApp group which suddenly came alive with comments of appreciation and admiration. Everyone was excited about the “awesome little guy” which may seem unusual for a creature of the night that seldom makes it on to “sightings of the day” checklists.

Bats are amongst some of the most common of all mammals living near Seolo’s lodges, and some even  live in the lodges under the eaves, and for those who understand these unique creatures they are a source of endless fascination.

They are remarkably complex creatures. The insectivorous species play important role in keeping insect populations in check while fruit bats help manage the health of forests and savannas by pollinating some trees and dispersing the seeds of others. 

It has been estimated that a single insectivorous bat can eat more than 600 mosquitos in an hour and in some areas people have encouraged the bats to roost in “bat boxes” in an attempt to keep down mosquito numbers near human habitation.

Insectivorous bats hunt by using echolocation during which they emit rapid bursts of ultrasonic sound which is reflected off insect prey, or solid objects like branches, and then picked by the bats ears and analyzed by the animal’s brain to help it locate the prey and avoid obstacles, even on moonless nights. Essentially they are using a very sophisticated type of radar but, contrary to popular opinion, they are not blind and many use their eyes to find prey too.

All bats hang upside down while roosting and this also requires specialized physiological adaptations. They have special one-way valves that prevent blood rushing to their head while roosting and the tendons in their legs are configured in such a way that the bat’s weight pulls the claws tight, a bit like a human clenching a fist, while hanging upside down and this prevents the animal relaxing its feet and falling when it goes to sleep. The bat has to make a conscious decision to open its claws before dropping from its perch and flying.

They are also the only mammal capable of true flight. The flying squirrels of North America and Asia and the Sugar gliders of Australia and New Guinea can only glide, although some can  glide over 90 meters (almost 300 feet).

Bats’ wings are highly specialized and resemble a stretched out human arm and hand with a membrane covering the boney structure. The scientific name for bats is Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing” in Greek.

Some 69 species of insectivorous bats and six species of fruit bat occur south of the Zambezi River.

The Little free-tailed bat found at Chundu occurs near all of Seolo’s properties and only weighs between 10 and 11 grams (less than half an ounce).

“They are small and only grow to about 90 mm (three and a half inches) long and are quite common in Africa,” Seolo regional manager Gerrit Meyer explains. “The free-tailed bats are unlike other bats because the tail is not encased in the interfemoral membrane, the wing part of the animal, and hangs free.”

At the other end of the scale in terms of size amongst southern Africa bats are Peter’s epauletted fruit bat and the Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat, both of which grow to about 140 mm ( just under six inches) in length and weigh up to 140 grams (five pounces). The Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat is often heard calling at night in the Kruger Park, its loud pinging territorial call carrying for hundreds of meters.

Fruit bats have large eyes and they find their food by sight. They usually roost in trees at night.

Despite their harmless nature bats have always been the victims of myths. They do not fly into people’s hair and in Africa there are no vampire bats. (Of the world’s more than 1100 bat species there are only three types of vampire bat, all of which occur in South America).

 So if you are on safari and fall asleep with your toes exposed your only real worry is being bitten by mosquitos and these “awesome little guys” with do their best to prevent that happening.