For thousands of years, bats have been associated with negative myths and legends. This is mainly due to the little mammals being completely misunderstood due to their elusiveness.

Even now, scientists are working hard at discovering new species and understanding their behaviours so it is no surprise that some of these ‘guesses’ have been passed on through generations.

While we are still trying to discover the unique behaviours that different species present, we can effectively dispel most of the myths and legends that have come to be.

Are Bats Blind?

Although insect-eating bats can use echolocation, a system akin to sonar, to orient themselves at night when lighting is unpredictable, none of the over 1000 species is blind. All bats have eyes and many see very well, indeed as well as humans or owls.

Do Bats get Tangled in Human Hair?

Many South Africans continue to believe this. One woman recounted how all the girls at her boarding school were instructed by their teachers to wear bonnets over their hair to ward off bats when crossing the courtyard at night! A bat-friendly couple from Westville described the reaction of female visitors when shown a pair of fruit bats roosting under their thatched gazebo – they invariably clutched their heads protectively. Even thousands of bats flying in a cave never touch each other or any human interloper because of their sophisticated navigation system.

Are Blood-sucking Vampires Found Throughout the World?

In the world, there are three species of vampire bats. They feed on blood and occur only in South and Central America. They do not occur in Africa, India, Australia, the United States or Europe – not even in Transylvania! Yet many people insist on believing that vampire bats occur worldwide. Recently, medical research has resulted in the isolation of an anti-coagulant factor in the saliva of the common vampire which is being used to help thin the blood of heart-attack victims. The product name is, unsurprisingly, ‘Draculin’!

Are Bats Messengers of Evil?

An association between bats and witchcraft is quite prevalent among some cultures in Southern Africa. Ground-up remains of bats have been used by herbalists as powerful ‘muti’, supposedly capable of inducing madness if added to the drink of another. Certain satanic groups in the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas have a penchant for using bat caves for their rituals. While recently watching a documentary on ancient Caribbean cultures, I noted that bats were regarded as messengers from the dead. The tribe’s religious shamans undertook their psychic consultations in the dark recesses of bat caves. It is worth noting that in China and the Pacific Islands, bats are regarded as good luck charms. The Chinese word ‘fu’ for a bat also means good fortune. Bat symbols figure prominently in Chinese designs on fabrics, dagger handles, pottery and other crafts. Even the bat symbol on the logo of Bacardi Rum was initially a symbol of good luck instituted by the original Cuban family owners of the business. Is it not time we took a lesson? Bats are no more evil than a pet Pekinese.

Do Bats Attack Humans?

Like any cornered wild animal, bats may bite in self-defence if picked up. However, bats are naturally gentle and non-aggressive animals and unprovoked attacks by bats on humans are unheard of. Nevertheless, in many cultures, bats are perceived to be aggressive, although no one has ever actually sustained or witnessed an attack!

Do Bats Nibble Your Ears?

We have repeatedly heard this myth among superstitious South Africans living in KwaZulu-Natal. Some even wear balaclavas while sleeping to prevent having their ears nibbled. I once asked a class of schoolchildren if any of them, their parents, or friends had ever known anyone to be bitten. Just guess the answer?

Do Bats Carry Rabies?

Rabies is a fatal disease which is spread by the bite of an infected animal. The bite must break the skin for the virus to enter the system, but even saliva on existing cuts and mucous membranes can be a risk. The incubation period is normally 20-90 days, and death results usually after about 14 days thereafter. Scientists have identified twelve strains, or serotypes, ‘rabies-like’ viruses (called lyssaviruses), certain of which may, very rarely, be harboured by bats: In southern Africa, ‘typical’ rabies (serotype 1) is carried by dogs and cats but has never been detected in bats. Two lyssaviruses, Lagos virus and Duvenhage virus, have been isolated from bats in South Africa. Only three cases of Duvenhage bat virus in humans have been reported, none of Lagos. In the past two years, two human deaths in Australia have resulted from the newly discovered Australian bat lyssavirus. In both cases, the victims were persons involved in the rehabilitation of flying foxes. Scientists believe this lyssavirus has probably been circulating in that bat population at a very low level for thousands of years. Safety guidelines:1) Don’t handle bats, or any wild mammals unless you have to2) Wear gloves, or handle bats with a towel, to prevent getting bitten3) Make sure to get inoculated with the rabies pre-exposure vaccine if you are going to be handling any wild mammals4) Soap and iodine may inactivate the rabies virus; use them liberally on any bites or scratches5) Be prepared to have any mammal that bites a person put down and tested. Contact the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute near Pretoria, or your nearest government or municipal health department.Tel: (012) 5299440 Fax: (012) 5299390

Does Bat Guano in a Roof Cause Fatal Lung Disease?

We have often heard, from the public, horrific stories of this allegedly fatal lung disease which will infect anyone who enters bat caves.n reality, acute benign histoplasmosis (the correct medical term) is a mild lung disease which can be caused by inhaling spores of the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, living in bird or bat guano. It is quite common among pigeon fanciers as well as cavers and bat scientists who have had exposure to large quantities of dust from bat guano in caves. According to South Africa’s medical expert on histoplasmosis, Dr Steven Craven of Cape Town, it is rarely fatal and is only potentially life-threatening in one of out some 100 000 cases. Nevertheless, as a precaution, anyone entering caves or roof spaces where a large accumulation of guano is present should wear a protective pathogen filter mask capable of filtering particles as small as 1-micron diameter. Anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms a couple of weeks after unprotected exposure to a large quantity of dust from moist bat or bird guano should contact a medical doctor for advice and treatment. Those with deficient immune systems (e.g. those with HIV infection) are at a much higher risk of medical complications related to histoplasmosis.

Do Bat Parasites Cause Human Disease?

A common, albeit irrational, fear of bats relates to the imagined health risks (disease or allergies) attributed to the parasites of bats. Bats harbour some fascinating but completely harmless parasites including species of wingless flies. These flies (of the families Strebilidae and Nycteriibidae) are specific to bats and occur on no other species, including man. One look at their weak mouthparts is enough to convince anyone they are incapable of biting through human skin. Bats do not harbour lice but may harbour the occasional bug (akin to bed bugs) or flea which rarely bite any animal other than another bat. Usually, only one or two parasites at most occur on a single bat, and diseases, rashes or any other conditions in humans known to be associated with bat parasites are extremely rare indeed, and very unlikely to be transmitted to someone who is not in close continuous physical contact with large numbers of bats. When bats move away from a roost, their parasites either follow them or soon die