Bats are truly fascinating creatures. They’re the only mammals capable of true flight, they sleep hanging upside-down, and they are a crucial link in the food chain.
What’s even more remarkable about bats is how they manage to live their lives so efficiently. Thankfully, Mother Nature has equipped bats with all the tools they need to survive and thrive, as they have been doing so for millions of years on almost every continent throughout the world.
In this article, we’ll be looking closely at bat anatomy, exploring the tools that equip bats to be expert flyers, hunters, and foragers. We’ll also be answering some of the most commonly asked questions about bat anatomy.
Bats Are Built for Flight
If you didn’t know anything about bats before looking at one closely, one of the first things you’d infer about them is that, unlike flying squirrels and sugar gliders, they are actually built to fly. A bat’s wings differ from a bird’s wings in that there are no feathers to assist them in flight. Instead, the bat takes advantage of a two-ply membrane made out of skin and stretched out along the entire length of the bats arms and fingers.
For most bat species, the wing membrane even connects to the bat’s tail. This unique feature gives the bat superior control during flight, because this tail flap acts as a kind of rudder. No wonder bats are so good at darting to and fro!
Another feature of bats that separates them from birds is the bone structure of their wings. Bats have four long, thin fingers and a thumb on each arm, all of which work together to allow the bat to both fly and to grab onto things.
[Fun Fact: A common misconception about birds is that their bones are completely hollow, which isn’t entirely true. Bird bones have large pockets of air within them, but they are not truly ‘hollowed out’.]
The key features of a bat’s skeleton that make it such a great flier are range of motion and the tiny, elongated structure of each bone itself.
The Bat/Dolphin Connection
Using refracted vibrations to locate obstacles, threats, and prey is not something that is specific to bats. But, it’s common knowledge that bats do use this unique technique to find their way in the dark. The term for using sound vibrations in this way is known as echolocation. Dolphins do it, too!
Unlike dolphins, however, bats are able to use their echolocation ability to detect objects that are as small as a human hair. This is critically important for the bat, as many species of bat feed on small flying insects.
How Echolocation Works
When a bat needs to get a ‘picture’ of its surroundings, it sends out a kind of clicking sound from it’s mouth or nose. When the reflected vibrations of that sound return to the bat’s ears, it gets an instant read on whatever is near it. This constant sending and receiving of sonic data happens multiple times in a single second, and it increases in frequency as the bat hones in on prey.
[Curious about what bat echolocation actually sounds like? You can listen to it for yourself, here.]
Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Blind as a bat’? Technically speaking, bats aren’t blind. They have eyes that work fairly well as a supplement to the echolocation information their brain needs to navigate during flight. But, because bats are mainly active during dusk or nighttime hours, most just assume that they’re not seeing, and they’re only hearing, which isn’t entirely true.
Frequently Asked Bat Anatomy Questions
If you’ve ever had a question about bat anatomy, you can probably find the answer here, where we’re going to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about bat anatomy.
Q: Do bats have fangs?
A: The term ‘fang’ typically refers to what are called canine teeth. All bat species have canines, and they also have incisors, premolars, and molars in both their upper and lower jaw. In many cases, these teeth are very, very sharp. That’s convenient, too, as bats need to cut and chew their food before digesting it.
So, yes. Bats do have ‘fangs’. However, they may not be as pronounced as many bat caricatures portray them to be. More often than not, a bats canine teeth are not visible unless it’s mouth is open.
Q: Do bats have fur?
A: Yes, bats do have fur, but not throughout their entire body. The wings, face, inner ears, and feet of most bats are completely devoid of any fur. This lack of fur actually aids them in flight, as furry wings wouldn’t be very effective at displacing air.
Fur does help to conserve thermal energy when the bat hibernates, which is a known behavior for dozens of different bat species.
Q: Do bats have feathers?
A: Because bats are mammals, they necessarily do not have feathers. The main features of mammals include the presence of hair or fur, as can be found with other mammals like squirrels and humans. Not only do bats not have feathers, but the surfaces of the wings bats use for flight are completely smooth.
The skin that covers their forearms is composed of something called Merkel Cells, a special kind of skin cell that heals quickly when damaged.
Q: Do bats have hands?
A: Sort of. Bats have humerus bones, elbows, forearms, wrists, and even phalanges (finger bones). You could describe the outer part of a bat’s wings as being hand-like, but they can only use their thumbs and wrists to actually grab onto or manipulate things. So, bats do have bones that closely resemble the human hand anatomically, but bats cannot use these bones like we do.
Q: Do bats have whiskers?
A: Yes. Bats do have whiskers. Whiskers are another feature of mammalian creatures, and they aid bats greatly. This is especially true when bats are roosting and need to ‘feel’ around themselves to find the perfect spot to ‘hang out’.
Whiskers are also good for detecting slight changes in the air—changes that can sometimes alert the bat to the presence of prey.
Q: Do bats have hair?
A: Yes. Because bats have fur (an identifying feature of all mammals), it’s fair to say that they have hair. In fact, the only difference between the word ‘hair’ and ‘fur’ is in the contextual use of the words themselves. These two words mean essentially the same thing, biologically speaking.
Q: Do bats have claws?
A: Yes. Bats have claw-like keratin formations located on their thumbs and on their toes. The claws on bat thumbs are commonly used for stability on the ground, when climbing trees, or when the bat lands on a vertical surface (like the side of a cactus or cave wall).
The claws that are located on the bat’s feet are much stronger than the forelimb claws. The bat relies on its foot-claws to firmly secure itself to the ceilings of caves, abandoned mines, and caverns. They are ‘locked’ into place and require minimal effort to maintain their grip, something that is ultra-important during hibernation.
Q: Do bats have legs?
A: Yes, bats have legs. They are typically very short, however, especially in comparison with their arms. Because bats don’t spend much time on the ground, they have little need for long, well-developed legs. Instead, the short, squatty legs they do have suit their purposes of efficient flight and effortless hanging quite well.
[Fun Fact: Did you know that bats can walk, run, and even swim? It’s true! In fact, the Vampire Bat is capable of an all-out gallop, during which it will use all four of its limbs to run along the ground. So, even with those short little legs, bats can quickly get around on the ground if need be.]
Bats are highly complex in their anatomical structure, from their delicate, limber skeleton to their hyper-accurate sense of echolocation. They are incredibly well-equipped to fly and to conserve the heat that their mammalian body produces.
Things like fur, claws, fangs, and whiskers all work in concert to give the bat all it needs to hunt effectively, fly fast, and maintain a constant awareness of its surroundings. The next time you see a group of bats, take note of what you hear and even what you smell. Many bats colonies are known to have a distinctive scent as a result of a special, sebaceous gland that the bats use to mark their territories.
Hopefully, this article has given you more of an appreciation for just how intricate and sophisticated bat anatomy is. We need bats in our ecosystem for the entire animal kingdom to thrive, and thankfully, bats have all they need to live out their lives doing what bats do best: flying, hunting, and sleeping!