To the bat cave!

Meet Fang. He’s an Indian fruit bat, on view at the zoo’s Tropics trailhead throughout the spooky, creepy month we’re calling “Howlzooween,” and he’s a real kid-magnet. Without fail, kids approach the bat booth in fascination and ask the same two questions in rapid succession: “Is that real? Is it alive?” This might get old for the volunteers spending half-hour shifts at the booth this month, repeating “yes” (real) and “no” (artfully preserved), except that these questions are just our jumping-off point to share other bat facts. And there are plenty of those.

Fang the fruit bat at Minnesota Zoo

The world contains 1,300 species of bats, most varied in the tropics but scattered pretty much everywhere but Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. Our own Tropics trail is home to a cave of 90 fruit bats representing three species. Unlike Fang, all seven of Minnesota’s native bat species are insect-eaters — including the little brown bat, which can devour 150 mosquitoes in 15 minutes. When they’re not bug-hunting — or pollinating, as fruit bats do; who knew!? — bats prefer to hang upside-down in enclosed spaces like mines or caves. Two exceptions: If they’re giving birth or relieving themselves, bats can hang right side up by the “thumbs” on their wings. Northern bats either migrate or hibernate in winter, depending on their species. The hibernators, including the little brown bat, are increasingly at risk from white nose syndrome, which damages their wings and disrupts their hibernation, driving them out into the fatal cold in search of food and water.

Fang facing usOne of my fellow Thursday volunteers has a long-standing love of bats, so needless to say, this month’s focus has delighted her. While I’ve never feared this flying mammal, my regard is more intellectual and wary. But now that the zoo has taught me so much about them — and given me a chance to teach others — I’ve gained new respect for their place in the ecosystem, and concern for their future.