Did you know that bats are the only mammals that use flight as a method to travel? Many erroneously believe that bats are flying rats or mice. In fact, they are not even rodents. They belong to a special group of their own, called Chiroptera, which is taken from the Greek word ‘cheir’, meaning ‘hand’ and ‘pteron’, meaning ‘wing’.
The 6th September marked a ‘Bat Night at the Museum’ that was held at the National Museum of Natural History at the Vilhena Palace in Mdina. Activities were hosted by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), in collaboration with Heritage Malta. The event was organized in the spirit of the United Nations’ EUROBATS International Bat Night, which is an awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for bat conservation and their habitats.
A number of stalls, set up in the front courtyard of the Vilhena Palace, focused on various topics related to bats. The stalls were accessible to the public till the evening and allowed people to get to know more about these flying mammals. Guests had the opportunity to meet with various NGOs and other entities, including the University of Malta, BICREF, Nature Trust and Greenhouse Malta. Night activities kicked off with a bat hearing session led by experts in the field of nature conservation. Guests who stayed the night had a very early start before sunrise the following morning, in order to spot bats returning to their roosts.
Bats are exceptionally vulnerable to extinction due to their low reproduction rate, with the female normally bearing only one offspring per year. Unfortunately, they also face a number of threats, including human disturbance, vandal acts in roosting sites and nurseries, and eviction from buildings. A number of Natura 2000 sites have been designated in order to afford protection to the important habitats of bats. Furthermore, bats have been protected under Maltese Law since 1993.
Unfortunately, bats have been subject to many myths through history and in many literary works, perhaps due to the way in which they appear in the dark. One such myth is associated to their eating habits. It is interesting to note that in Europe, there are no vampire bats and only one fruit-eating bat. Another such myth is their association with disease, particularly rabies. However, the likelihood of contracting rabies from a bat is extremely low. Bats do not attack humans, and generally avoid direct contact, and would only bite a person to defend themselves. These flying mammals eat flies, mosquitoes, moths and other insects and thereby control insect populations very effectively. Some bats also serve as important pollinators and seed dispersers of many plants that are important to humans. In actual fact, bat populations are one of the best natural indicators of the health of our environment, seeing as they prosper where an ecosystem is healthy and stable.
One of the threatened species of bats found in Malta is the Maghrebian Mouse-eared Bat, a species with a restricted distribution in the Mediterranean and the world. It is the one of the largest bat species occuring in Malta, having a wingspan of 30-40 cm. Although it is a cave-dwelling bat, it has also been observed roosting in World War II shelters, catacombs and other human dwellings. What happens if you spot one? It is imperative to know that it is illegal to disturb, capture, kill, keep, sell or trade this unique flying mammal.
ERA remains committed to aid in educating the public on the importance of conserving indigenous species. In order to do this, it is eager to work hand in hand with various stakeholders, with the ultimate aim of motivating Maltese citizens to safeguard our flora and fauna out of free will and genuine understanding of their importance to the Maltese islands.