The Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)–Another Pleistocene Survivor

When I was about 10 years old, I woke up one night and heard something flying around my bedroom.  The creature kept clumsily hitting the walls and from the sound of leathery wings smacking into plaster I knew it was a bat and not a bird.  I walked down the hall to my parents bedroom.

“There’s a bat in my bedroom,” I told my mom.

My mom’s not a girly type of woman who freaks out at the sight of a bug, so her reaction really surprised me.  She later told me she thought I was dreaming, and she did not expect to actually see a bat.  But as soon as she turned on the hall light, a big bat, looking just like a prop from a vampire movie, came flying straight toward us.  My mom slammed her bedroom door in my face, and I ducked under the bat which proceeded to fly down the stairs.  A few minutes later, my mom opened the bedroom door a crack and told me to round up my sisters.  She wanted us to sleep in her room that night because she was afraid the bat might carry rabies.

My mom refused to cook breakfast the next morning.  We went to eat at IHOP instead.  My dad owned a private medical practice at the time, and  one of his patients was in the pest control business, so my dad sent him to our house to look for the bat.  He did examine the living room curtain, but evidentally didn’t see the roosting bat.  That night, we watched a war movie on television, and the explosions from World War II artillery awoke the bat.  The bat crawled down the curtain and started flying around the room.  My dad grabbed his tennis racquet, I opened the front door, and he backhanded the bat out the doorway.

Big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus).  I believe this is the species that startled my mom into slamming her door in my face.

Based on my memory of its wingspan, I believe the bat that invaded our home on Hogarth Avenue in Niles, Ohio circa 1972 was a big brown bat.  They commonly crawl down chimneys and get inside houses.

There are  9 species of bats that range into Georgia today.  During the Pleistocene there were at least an additional 2 species.  The extinct Pleistocene vampire bat (Desmodus stocki) must have lived in what’s now Georgia then.  And prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadadira brasiliensis) probably lived here as well, but this species has yet to recolonize its former range, since the climate has warmed following the end of the Ice Age.  Fossils dating to ~40,000 BP of this species have been excavated from Mammoth Cave, Kentucky which is far outside its present day range.  Fossil evidence of bats in Georgia is limited to cave dwelling species–gray myotises (Myotis grisescens), big brown bats, and pipistrelles (Pipistrellus subflavus).  The latter species has a wingspan of only 3 inches–a pipsqueak–and can be confused with a large moth when viewed from a distance.  There are several interesting species of bats that roost in Georgia’s forests, and therefore are not as likely as cave dwelling species to be represented in the fossil record.  Rafinesque’s big-eared bat (Plecotus rafinesquii) roosts in hollow cypress trees, and yellow bats (Lasiurus intermedia) exclusively spend days hidden in Spanish moss.  Perhaps the bat best adapted to the climatic fluctuations of the Pleistocene is the still abundant red bat.

The Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), still extant, is well adapted to climatic fluctuations and is a real survivor of the Pleistocene when climate fluctuations were drastic compared to those of the most recent 11,000 years. 

Unlike most bats, this species is covered in fur and has short ears.  It’s capable of surviving at lower temperatures than any other species of bat, though it does become inactive below 68 degrees F.  They migrate south during the winter but spread as far north as Canada during the summer. They can also hibernate, if necessary.  They roost in trees, shrubs, and even within leaf litter on the ground.  They become active 90 minutes after sunset when they begin hunting for moths (26% of their diet), flies, mosquitoes, crickets, bugs, beetles, and cicadas.  They use echolocation to catch flying insects on the wing and to pounce on crawling arthropods.  Most species of bats give birth to 1 or 2 young, but red bats have litters as large as 5.  The mother bats leave the baby bats at the roost while foraging.  They will transport them to new roosts, however.  7% of the red bat population carries the rabies virus.  A predator such as a house cat or possum could easily become infected, if they find a red bat in the leaf litter.  Surprisingly though, blue jays are the top predator of red bats, mostly attacking the young.

Red bats have been excavated from fossil sites in Missouri, West Virginia, Virginia, Florida, and even Bermuda.  Apparently, a red bat washed up on a Bermuda beach 400,000 years ago and became fossilized.  Red bats are an ancient species and will probably survive the scourge of white nose syndrome, the disease that is wiping out all cave dwelling bats in eastern North America.  Because red bats are a solitary forest dwelling species, they are less likely to become infected with the communicable disease.  They’ll still be with us when, sadly, most other species of North America’s eastern bats are probably going to become extinct–an ecological disaster.

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2 Responses to “The Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis)–Another Pleistocene Survivor”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    I like bats. When I was a kid we had jillions of them around our place in Decatur GA. They’d come out in droves as night fell and me and my pals would stand in the playground of the local school and throw rocks into the air and watch the bats dive for them, thinking they were moths of knots of bugs to eat. They’d always figure out it wasn’t something to eat after a slight jig in the direction of the arcing pebble.

    The last bat I saw was on the Appalachian Trail in VA last year in Spring. It was a really small one and at first I thought it was a butterfly. Finally it landed on a tree trunk and I realized it was a bat. It was the slowest flying bat I’d ever seen, out in full daylight. Later, we wondered if it was sick–all this stuff about white-nose syndrome, etc.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    If it was the size of a butterfly, it was probably a pipistrelle.

    White nose syndrome has spread as far south as north Georgia. All cave roosting bats are doomed.

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