In the world of flying animals, bats are among the most acrobatic, intuitive, and effective flyers to ever exist. These masters of aerial navigation use sonic frequencies emitted by their noses and mouths to better understand their terrain and to locate prey, a feature of bats known as echolocation.
Not only are bats exceptionally good flyers—they’re also distinctly different from birds insofar as their bodies and bone structure are concerned. The flight pattern of the bat is almost a trademark of this animal, and in this article, we’re going to be taking a closer look at just how fast and high bats fly, and for what reasons.
The Bat’s Anatomical Toolset
To better understand how bats are able to maneuver so adeptly in the air, it helps to discuss their wing structure and composition. Unlike birds, bat wings do not have feathers. Instead, the forearm and ‘fingers’ of the bat wing are covered by a two-ply membrane of skin. But, this isn’t just any skin.
The skin on bat wings is composed of something called Merkel cells, which are a special type of skin cell that aid the bat in two key ways:
Merkel cells heal very quickly. Bats are constantly subjecting their wings to the elements and to the abrasions that come with being a flying hunter/forager. Many bat species dine on cactus fruits, and if we know anything about cactuses, we know that they can be pointy, making fast-healing skin cells all that much more important.
Merkel cells have a high density of nerve endings. Even though bats don’t have feathers, they do have tiny hairs on their wings that interact with the Merkel cells described above. This powerful combination of hair and skin sensitivity gives the bat a lot of information about its environment as it darts to and fro.
To give the bat even more agility and adaptability in the air, their joints are exceptionally flexible. The same wings bats use to fly are used to coddle their young, manipulate food, and they even aid them in walking, running and swimming.
Now that we know a bit more about how the common bat is physically equipped for flight, let’s examine their flight paths and aerial maneuvering behaviors, so that we can definitively answer the question, “How fast and high do bats fly?”.
Bat Flight Height
Bat flight patterns are often described by biologists as being either ‘diffuse’ or ‘serpentine’. A diffuse flight path is a flight path that is taken by a single bat away from its colony. A serpentine flight path, on the other hand, describes how bats fly in columns with their colony.
So, why do bats fly at all? Why not just roost in caves and feed on the insects that are unfortunate enough to wander in? Bats take flight for two principle reasons: to hunt or forage, and to migrate or relocate.
Let’s take each of these purposes for bat flight on their own, so we can better understand exactly where the bat is going.
It’s safe to say that wherever the insect density is the highest, bats are going to go there (assuming of course they can withstand the atmospheric pressure and oxygen level of the elevation in question).
In 1997, the Journal of Mammalogy published a study in which a high-altitude balloon with bat-detecting equipment was used to determine just how high bats are willing to go in their pursuit of food. This study revealed that at least seven species of bat—to include six molassids and one emballonurid—actively hunted for insects at elevations equal to or greater than 600 meters (1,970 feet).
In another study, bats were observed feeding on insects located as high as 800 meters above ground level.
If that’s not high enough for you, consider the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bat, which actively hunts for insects at heights sometimes reaching 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) off the ground.
It’s important to note that not all bat species hunt for insect prey. Instead, many bats prefer to feed on things like cactus fruits and flower nectar. Because these food sources are located on the ground, the bats that dine on them don’t need to fly high to obtain food. Bats that keep to a strict diet of fruits are called frugivores, and one such example of a frugivore bat is the Epauletted Fruit Bat.
Did you know that the USGS has a North American Bat Monitoring Program that is dedicated to tracking the migratory activity of bats? This passionate group of biologists is interested in learning how, where, and why bats migrate or hibernate, and from the data they’ve collected, it’s been determined that bats can fly for hundreds of miles just to reach more temperate climates during the winter months.
So, how high are they flying when they migrate? The truth is that we simply don’t have enough data to say. Some of the most common methods of bat tracking involve the use of tiny GPS devices that are affixed to bats, giving scientists an ongoing read on their location. However, bat migration typically happens at the colony level, entire bat colonies are much more difficult to track than single, isolated bats.
There are theories, however. Using statistical models and migratory information gathered from bird species, biologists can speculate about the migratory flight paths of many bat species, but as far as knowing exactly how high they fly during migration, it’s not 100% clear.
Bat Flight Speed
Now that we have a general idea for how high bats fly when they’re hunting or foraging, let’s move into our next subject of discussion: how fast bats fly.
To answer this question, we could use a couple of different approaches. One would be to try and arrive at an average flight speed for bats across all species (remember that there are more than 1,300 species of bats throughout the world). Another approach would be to look at the fastest bat and use its top speed to answer our question.
Why not do both?
Average Western Bat Flight Speed
Looking at a bat population that can be described as ‘Western’, a study from 1964 found that the average speeds for all western bats came in at a maximum of 15 miles-per-hour and a minimum of 4.5 miles-per-hour. A variation of speeds within these limits made up for the majority of flight that the bats took throughout the study.
In another study from the University of Oklahoma, an estimate of the flight speed of cave bats came in at around 10 miles-per-hour. When we look at all species of bats and use data from studies like these two, we can safely say that the average airspeed of a western bat is about 9.75 miles-per-hour (average used from the 1964 study listed above).
To put this into perspective, the average airspeed of an unladen swallow (bird) is about 24 miles-per-hour. That makes most western bats look fairly slow by comparison. But, before you start thinking that all bats throughout the world are slow fliers, you need to know about the fastest bat flight speed ever recorded.
The Fastest Bat, Ever
To answer the question of which bat flies the fastest and what its maximum speed is, we need look no further than the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bat. Also called the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, this tiny little guy has been clocked flying at speeds nearing 100 miles-per-hour (99 MPH, to be exact). Now that’s fast!
This world record-setting bat proves that you don’t need the hollow bones of birds in order to reach top speeds in-flight.
In this article, we’ve discussed the many anatomical reasons why bats are superior fliers. Their unique wings and extra-limber skeletons help them rank high among the most adept and efficient fliers throughout the Animal Kingdom.
We’ve also looked at the reasons why bats fly at all, which mostly have to do with things like eating and moving from one place to another. We examined the various altitudes at which bats fly, and we’ve determined which bat is the absolute fastest among them all: the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bat.
Hopefully this article has given you some insight into the lives of bats. Not only are they a crucial link in the food chain here on Planet Earth; bats are also fascinating creatures that can teach us a lot about our environment and how all living this coexist together. To learn more about bats, feel free to explore the other resources listed on this page.