Utah has some amazing animal populations including three kinds of big cats; elk, buffalo, deer and antelope; bighorn sheep and goats; coyotes and fox; hundreds of bird species; bunnies, bears and bats. With a little persistence you can catch a glimpse of many of Utah’s native residents. One of the most fun to watch is the bat.
Look to the sky at dusk and those small birds you see may actually be bats. You can distinguish bats from birds by their flight patterns. Bats tend to have smaller wings that flutter quickly. They also fly in short scooping patterns, instead of swooping arcs. You also won’t see them simply soar on their wings, as birds do. If you are lucky enough to see bats in flight, give thanks. They eat 30 to 50 percent of their body weight each night, primarily in mosquitoes, moths, and insects that ruin crops. Some bats have also been known to eat fruit, nuts, beetles and scorpions. A single bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes per night.
One of the most successful mammals of all time, they have been around, largely unchanged, for over 50 million years and once filled the night skies worldwide. One fifth of all mammals are bats. Of the 950 species of bats worldwide, only three actually drink blood, none of which live in Utah, that does harbor 18 other species of bats.
Utah’s bats are typically small with pug-noses and roost in trees, caves, cracks in rocks, and man-made structures like bridges, barns and attics. They also enjoy the many bat boxes built by bat lovers.
Bats are the only mammal that can fly and they do that surprisingly well. Some species can make right-angle turns at 40 miles per hour; others skim the ground, less than 10 feet above the ground as forage for bugs. The find their prey using high-frequency sound inaudible to human ears, similar to the echolocation of whales and dolphins. The echoes create sound pictures that let bats “see” their environment and prey.
Utah’s bats include the spotted bat, Allen’s Big-Eared Bat, the Big Brown Bat, and the Big Free-Tailed Bat. One of the most common around Zion is the e-pallid bat, which lives throughout most of the western states, the southwestern corner of Canada and most of Mexico. It roosts in rocky cliffs and old buildings near water within arid deserts and grasslands and hibernates in caves and abandoned mines during the winter. Interestingly, it captures its insects on the ground more often than in the air.
The spotted bat was once common, although not abundant, throughout a similar region, although not as extensively in Mexico. Included on Utah Sensitive Species List, the population appears to be declining. The little brown myotis (a subspecies of bat) may be the bat you are most likely to spot. It lives throughout the U.S. all the way up through Alaska and Canada and is fairly indiscriminate about its housing needs, moving from caves, hollow trees and buildings within a wide variety of habitats, but preferring woodlands with open water available. They also hibernate in caves and mines where large colonies will roost throughout the winter. If you see one bat, you most likely will see more, fluttering in the air just after the sun sets.