Here’s a little creature, just four centimetres long as a full-grown adult. Aah, sweet. He’s highly gregarious, living with his chums in colonies of up to 2500, and he feeds mainly on small flying insects. He sounds charming and friendly, quite the sort of harmless little fellow you’d like your kid to have as a pet.
Now you’re all creeped out, right? But why? In the next post, I’m going to explore some of the myths about these poor misunderstood critters, in the hope of squashing your misguided fear of them, but for now let’s just talk about the bat-houses on stilts around the camp at Letaba.
Most bats need to drop from their roost to be able to fly, so their living quarters must be 3.5 to five metres above the ground. I’ve been lucky enough at Letaba to stand next to some of these man-made wooden structures at dusk and to watch hundreds of bats pouring out in search of their evening meal. Once you’ve seen that, you can’t help wanting to know more about them.
Sometimes, though, bat-houses are used to attract bats to an area. That’s because farmers have realised that they help to fertilise crops with their guano. They also help with pollination because pollen sticks to their snouts and wings, and then gets passed on to other plants.
It’s even thought that bats may help to keep the incidence of malaria in check because they eat the little bastards that carry the disease, though this has yet to be proved.
You’ll find both fruit-eating and insect-eating bats in the Kruger National Park, though it’s the insectivores that make up 40 of the 43 bat species found there.
If bats had estate agents, those agents would be extolling the virtues of Letaba rest camp: position, position, position. Thanks to the camp’s setting along the river, where many fruit-bearing trees grow and attract abundant insect life, there’s lots of food for both kinds of bats.
I defy you not to be impressed by the bat’s echolocation skills. Whereas fruit-eating bats have excellent eyesight and don’t need such sophisticated technology, those that eat insects have to be able to find and capture small, rapidly moving prey, usually in flight in the dark.
And that’s where echolocation comes in so handy.
They produce pulses of high-frequency sound and respond to the echoes that bounce back from the objects in their path. The further the object is away, the further the pulses have to travel, there and back, so the ingenious little guys gauge the distance from the time lag between the call and the echo.
They can even identify different types of prey because the shape of the object also produces a different echo.
I call that pretty darn clever.
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