No other flying animal gets as bad of a rap as bats do. These fascinating creatures can teach us a lot about how nature has managed to adapt and overcome throughout millenia of evolutionary changes. Not only are bats fantastic flyers and hunters; they also live in virtually every part of the continental United States.
To understand bats is to understand what separates one species of bat from another. In this article, we’re going to examine the most populous bat species in North America. We’ll be giving you some identifying characteristics so you can spot them yourself, and with some luck, you’ll learn a thing or two about bats that you didn’t know before reading this!
A Thousand Types of Bats to Choose From
You may already know that bats are flying mammals and that they’re nocturnal. But, did you know that there are over 1,000 bat species throughout the world? Among them, ~40 species inhabit the United States, which is where we’re going to keep our focus.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that all bats—regardless of where they’re located on the planet—belong to the biological order known as Chiroptera. Within this order, there are four families of bats that are native to North America. These families are:
- Vespertilionidae – Otherwise known as ‘microbats’, this family contains bats with small bodies and simple noses (did you know that many bats are most easily identified by looking at their nose? It’s true!). This family also accounts for the most amount of bats, by volume, living in the United States.
- Molossidae – The Molossidae family of bats contains free-tailed bats with long, narrow wings. Fun fact: the Molossidae family name comes from the Molossus breed of dog.
- Mormoopidae – This bats in this family have mustaches! Not really; some of them just look like it. The Mormoopidae family of bats also contains ghost-faced bats and naked-backed bats.
- Phyliostomidae – You probably won’t find many of the bats from this family in the United States unless you live in places like Texas or Arizona. This is because most Phyliostomidae bats are found in the region located between northern Mexico and Argentina.
Now that we’ve covered the four main families of bats in North America, let’s nosedive into some of the most notable species that you might encounter out in the wild.
The great thing about this family of bats is that there is a lot of species contained within it. In fact, in North America alone, there are more than thirty individual species of Vespertilionidae bats. Let’s have a look at some of the most remarkable among them.
The Canyon Bat
Also called the Western Pipistrelle bat, the Canyon Bat is mostly found in the western United States. This bat wins the award for being the smallest of all the bats in the US, measuring in at a scant 62-80 millimeters in length. That’s small!
The Canyon Bat gets its name from one of its most preferred living areas: canyons. While the Canyon Bat is technically nocturnal, it’s not uncommon to see them out and about before the sun sets or even after the sun rises. These guys like to ‘push the envelope’ on the whole nocturnal thing!
Why do they do this? The hunting is better! The Canyon Bat is an insectivore like most other bats, and flying insects are more active when there is still light out.
The Spotted Bat
This bat was first discovered in 1891, and it’s much larger in size than many other bats in the same family. The Spotted Bat can reach lengths exceeding 24 centimeters, extending its wings to an impressive 35-centimeter wingspan.
If you’re anywhere near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, you’re likely to encounter the Spotted Bat. However, they also like to live in marshes, grasslands, and forests in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and California.
Sadly, Spotted Bat populations in the United States have taken a sharp hit in recent decades. This is largely due to the pervasive use of pesticides like DDT, particularly during the 1960’s.
The Evening Bat
If you ever find yourself relaxing outside on the patio during the evening, perhaps enjoying a delicious cup of tea, don’t be surprised if you are visited by an Evening Bat. Because, after all, these bats are most active during, you guessed it, the evening time.
Like virtually all other bats, the Evening Bat hunts at night. They tend to hunt moths, beetles, gnats, and other flying insects. This is great news if you happen to be plagued by mosquitoes; Evening Bats love mosquitos!
Your chances of seeing an Evening Bat will be even higher if you’re located along the eastern seaboard in the United States. Evening Bats have been seen as far west as Kansas, and they’ve even managed to migrate into parts of Mexico.
Bats from the Molossidae family are much rarer than those in the Vespertilionidae family. That’s because Molossidae contains only eight subgroups:
- Wagner’s Mastiff Bat
- Florida Bonneted Bat
- Western Mastiff Bat
- Palla’s Mastiff Bat
- Underwood’s Bonneted Bat
- Pocketed Free-tailed Bat
- Brazilian Free-tailed Bat
- Big Free-tailed Bat
Let’s look at three of the most interesting bats from Molossidae: the Wagner’s Bonneted Bat, the Big Free-tailed Bat, and the Palla’s Mastiff Bat.
Wagner’s Bonneted Bat
This is a medium-sized bat, but it’s size can vary widely. This bat is known for its long snout and unique ear shape. Interestingly, the ears on this bat are connected with a small flap of tissue, making the bat look like it’s wearing a bonnet.
If you’re ever wondering if a bat you’re seeing is a Wagner’s Bonneted Bat, try to see if you detect any odor. This is because the Wagner’s Bonneted Bat has a very unique, musky odor that it probably uses to mark its territory. This odor comes from a sebaceous gland that is part of the bat’s anatomy.
Big Free-tailed Bat
Looking for a big bat? You’ve found it with the Big Free-tailed bat, a species of bat that inhabits south, north, and central America. Discovered in 1839, this bat has an average wingspan of 42-44 centimeters.
These bats are also very fast. The Big Free-tailed Bat has the capability of flying at speeds well in excess of 25 miles per hour! You’re likely to encounter a Big Free-tailed bat if you live in Texas, California, Nevada, and Utah.
Pallas’s Mastiff Bat
The Pallas’s Mastiff Bat is also called the Velvety Free-tailed Bat, and its size can best be described as ‘medium’. This bat forages in open areas above tree canopies, looking for snacks in the form of flying ants, beetles, and moths.
These bats typically fly solo and hunt by snatching insects out of the air in mid-flight. Impressive!
Here’s an interesting fact about the Pallas’s Mastiff Bat: in the Amazon, this bat is actually prey for a kind of insect known as the Giant Centipede (Scolopendra Viridicornis). That’s right…there is a centipede in the Amazon forest that will actually eat a bat. Who knew?
The only US-native member of the Mormoopidae bat family is the Ghost-faced Bat (Mormoops Megalophylla). This bat gets its name from its strange facial appearance, which does actually seem kind of ghostish! This is due to numerous flaps of skin that hang down around its underdeveloped nose.
The Ghost-faced Bat is a medium-sized bat that undergoes a process known as molting, during which the bat will shed a layer of its skin. Imagine the scene you might be presented with if you should come upon a Ghost-faced Bat during its molting process. What a sight!
Ghost-faced Bats are very sensitive creatures, even when compared with other bats in the same family. This is largely due to their uncommonly high body temperature, which is usually at least a few degrees higher than the ambient temperature they live in. Because of this, Ghost-faced Bats avoid temperatures below 10 degrees Celsuis. If they’re in a cold environment for too long, they can succumb to hypothermia within just a few hours.
The only bats in the Phyllostomidae family that are known to inhabit the United States are the Mexican Long-tongued Bat, the Mexican Long-nosed Bat, and the California Leaf-nosed Bat. Let’s have a look at what makes each of these bats unique.
The Mexican Long-tongued Bat is rarely ever seen farther north than Arizona, southern California, and southern Texas. The ‘long-tongued’ moniker is well-placed, because this bat has a tongue that can extend up to a third of its body length. It uses this impressive oral tool to feed on nectar and pollen from agaves and fruits from other plants.
The Mexican Long-tongued Bat prefers to roost in caves or abandoned buildings when it sleeps during the day, coming out at night to feed and forage. Unfortunately, the mining and tourism industries have contributed to the Mexican Long-tongued Bat being placed on the ‘Near Threatened’ list of endangered species.
The Mexican Long-nosed Bat is also known as the Saussure’s Long-nosed Bat, and it’s native to South, Central, and North America. Not a lot is known about this specific species of bat, aside from it being a known pollinator of many nocturnal blooming cactus species.
The California Leaf-nosed Bat is found in Mexico and California, and it prefers hot, dry climates like deserts and brushlands. This bat is very small, weighing in at only 12-20 grams. The most remarkable thing about this bat is it’s nose—something that is best described as triangular, fleshy, and protruding.
This bat has short, broad wings and is exceptionally well-suited for long-distance travel. Even granting this, the California Leaf-nosed bat is not migratory. This means that it’s especially important to protect its established roosts, which are often located in places like abandoned mines, caves, and rock outcroppings.
In this article, we’ve gone over the identifying traits, preferred habitats, and main differences among the most common types of bats found in the United States. These bats all have a crucial role to play in the environmental ecosystems in which they live.
If you ever do encounter a bat in your backyard or while out in nature, take note if its unique flight path (often darting to and fro), and notice how adept they are at avoiding daylight. Do not attempt to catch or handle any bat, as most bat species do have teeth and their wings are well-equipped with claws that can scratch you. Instead, observe the bat from a distance and respect its need for freedom to hunt and live its life naturally.
Like most other animals in the animal kingdom, respect the bats, and the bats will respect you!
For more information about the bats you’re likely to find in the US, refer to the other resources listed on this page.