They save the farming industry millions of dollars each year, help sustain the world's forests and, in some countries, are a major tourist attraction. Bats - described as 'one of the planet's most misunderstood and persecuted mammals' - are now flying out of the night and into the spotlight for a two-year-long celebration. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)-backed Year of the Bat will promote conservation, research, and education on the world's only flying mammals. There will be a special focus on the ecological benefits that bats provide, such as pest control and seed dispersal
From insect-eating bats in Europe that provide important pest control to seed-dispersing bats in the tropics that help sustain rainforests, bats deliver vital ecosystem services across a wide range of environments. Bat populations in large urban areas can consume up to 30,000 pounds of insects in a single night.
One of most spectacular and unusual tourist attractions in Austin, TX is the Congress Bridge bat flight from mid-March until November, where over a million Mexican free-tailed bats stream into the sky at dusk on their nightly forage for food. A popular tourist attraction, the spectacular bat flight generates millions of dollars for the city each year.
When migrating, bats can travel up to 4,000 km in one year. Africa's greatest mammal migration involves 8 million fruit bats that fly into Zambia from across the continent each year. This flight is an incredible spectacle that scientists are still unraveling. Besides the Arctic, Antarctic and a few isolated oceanic regions, bats are found everywhere on Earth. Having inhabited the planet for the last 50 million years, bats today make up nearly a quarter of the global mammal population. Although more than 1,100 bat species are now documented, bat species are still being discovered in places as varied as Madagascar, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Comoros islands.
The Year of the Bat will coincide with the United Nations' International Year of Forests. Bat species disperse seeds and aid pollination in temperate and tropical forests, helping to regenerate and sustain almost a third of the Earth's land area. Sustainable forestry management is essential for maintaining healthy bat populations as well as balanced ecosystems in forests and woodland areas.
Bat populations have declined alarmingly in recent decades. Despite intensified conservation efforts, over half of all bats species are now classified by the International Union for Conservation as threatened or near threatened. Habitat loss and destruction, human disturbance at hibernation sites, increasing urbanization, and epidemics such as White-nose Syndrome, which has killed more than half a million bats in the United States since 2006, are putting bats increasingly in danger. Bat species throughout the world need continued protection.
Most people are unaware that bats provide invaluable services to the environment. Fruit agriculture of primary importance to tropical economies, depends to a large extent on the ecological contributions of fruit bats. An estimated 134 plants that yield products used by humans are partially or entirely reliant on bats for seed dispersal or pollination.
Environmental experts increasingly regard bats as indicators of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. With biodiversity as an integral part of the campaign, the Year of the Bat will encourage people across the world to get involved in bat conservation efforts, so that these fascinating "masters of the night sky" can continue to delight us and perform their invaluable services to the global environment.
The Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory will participate in this celebration in 2012. Stay tuned!