It’s safe to say that bats have earned a less-than-desirable reputation. Despite being some of the oldest and most prolific species of animal on the planet, bats have become feared, stigmatized, and unjustly labeled as dangerous or invasive. In this article, we’re going to try to understand why people are afraid of bats and we’re going to clear up some of the most common misconceptions about this extraordinary mammal.
We’ll start with some historical context surrounding bats, and then we’ll transition into more modern perspectives, including those offered by biologists and zoologists.
Photo Credit: Brad Clark on Flickr
The Role of Bats in Early Human History
By studying the fossil record, paleontologists estimate that the earliest known appearance of Chiroptera (the technical name for the bat order of animals) dates back to at least the Eocene Epoch, which was 50 million years ago.
Considering that modern human beings have only been around for about 300,000 years at best, it’s clear that bats have existed for a lot longer than we have. Humans have had to contend with bats for as long as we’ve been on Earth at all, which means coexisting with them in caves, observing them in the skies at twilight, and trying to make sense of why these odd, elusive flying animals only seem to be active when the sun goes down.
Because bats are nocturnal and often roost in places like caverns and dark, dank recesses, it’s no wonder that early humans formed a distasteful opinion about them. After all, they prefer the cover of night, they’re unpredictable, and they hang upside down, wings folded around them, in order to sleep. What’s more, many bats have bodies that are covered in fur, giving them a rat- or mouse-like appearance.
The Dawn of Bat Mythology
The Mayan civilization is one of the earliest to have developed a mythology surrounding bats. Camazotz, also known as the “Death Bat God”, was a figurative idol that was expressed throughout Mayan artwork and culture dating back as far as 2,000 BC. So, we know that even the Mayans had developed a less-than-stellar opinion of bats, going so far as to associate them with death.
When we examine the behavior of most bat species, it’s not surprising that early humans developed such an off-putting opinion about them. Bats prefer to live in the shadows or the dark, they swoop down from the skies during times when we cannot see them well, and they’re nowhere to be found in the daylight hours, unless of course you wander into a cavern and find a colony of them roosting on the ceiling.
However, not all mythology surrounding bats is necessarily negative. For example, the Evaki Goddess of ancient Native American folklore is often depicted as a bat and is associated with sleep and dreams. According to this myth, Evaki is responsible for taking the sun out of a jar every morning and putting it back every evening, contributing to the routine operation of the cosmos. Even still, Evaki is shrouded in a dark, night-ish aura that smacks of disguise and elusivity.
Bats in Modern Culture
To get a better idea of why people are so afraid of bats, let’s shift our focus to some of the more modern examples of bat portrayal in stories and other cultural media.
In 1897, Bram Stoker wrote the horror novel Dracula, which centered around Count Dracula, the main protagonist of the story. Count Dracula was a shapeshifting vampire that could take the form of a bat, flying wherever he pleased, feeding on the blood of hapless humans at odd hours of the night. No one was safe from Count Dracula, and because he was only active at night (much like bats in the real world), he fed off his victims with complete impunity.
The story of Count Dracula would go on to be the foundation for the ongoing development of the vampire motif, something that would be expressed throughout many cultures in the world. Many believe that Bram Stoker’s inspiration for writing Dracula came from Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian ruler who was in power from 1456-1462.
All of this has at least something to do with the common misconception that all bats are vampiric, or that they thrive on the blood of humans. The fact is, among the 1,300+ species of bats in the world, only three of them are known to have diets that are strictly relegated to the blood of other animals. These three species—colloquially termed ‘vampire bats’—don’t even ‘suck’ blood, per se. Instead, specialized heat sensors within the bat detect the location of veins near the skin of sleeping animals. The vampire bat then uses its sharp teeth to cut the skin to initiate bleeding. The bat then laps up the blood before flying off undetected.
Bats in Hollywood
Of all of the movies that have involved bats or used bats as a component part of the storyline, many of them have relied on the worn-down mythology of bats as vampires. Why? Because it makes for easy, captivating storytelling. Because we’ve been so conditioned to associate bats with nighttime vampirism, it makes perfect sense why Hollywood movie producers would perpetuate these perceptions in their creative efforts.
And then, of course, there’s Batman, the iconic comic book superhero that is independently wealthy, lives in a subterranean megacomplex, and takes to the skies at night to fight crime. His ‘real’ name is Bruce Wayne, and he is the savior that Gotham City needs but doesn’t deserve.
So, why the shift from viewing bats as disdainful, blood-sucking monsters to associating them with a superhero who does good in the world? One could theorize that Batman only takes the agreeable aspects of bats to use as tools to help him fight crime, setting aside the less palatable features of bats like drinking blood and showcasing razor-sharp teeth.
The Disease Factor
Another crucial reason why bats are feared more than other animals is because of their propensity to be carriers of contagious diseases like rabies and viruses. While it is true that bats are known contributors to the spread of many infectious diseases, it’s been shown that “most human outbreaks of bat-borne zoonotic diseases have been suggested to be as a consequence of human activities. For example, outbreaks of MARV in Africa have been linked to human contact with bat caves, for reasons such as mining operations or tourism”.
When it comes to rabies, human fear of bats is fairly well-placed. Even though the majority of bats in the world do not carry rabies, bats lead in US rabies infections, accounting for roughly seven out of ten rabies deaths. Education about bats and what to do when they are encountered can go a long way in preventing this.
In this article, we’ve explored some of the mythology surrounding bats in an effort to explain exactly why so many people are afraid of bats. We’ve also looked at the role that bats have played in modern culture, from Hollywood to books about nocturnal vampires. And, we’ve taken an unbiased look at the impact that bat-borne diseases have on humans.
All in all, bats continue to be a misunderstood order of animals. Much more study is needed to understand how we can best live together on this planet, sharing the resources that are here for both bats and humans to thrive on.
We encourage you to learn more about bats through your own research, and by exploring the other bat-related resources found on this page.