As one of the most abundant and diverse groups of tropical mammals, bats form a fundamental component of African biodiversity. The continent is a crucial frontier for bat conservation, being home to over 20 percent of the world’s 1,250+ bat species.
What is a bat?
• Bats are mammals like humans, rodents and carnivores.
• Like other mammals they have hair or fur on their bodies and are warm-blooded.
• However, bats are the only mammals that can fly.
• A bat's wing has very similar bones to the hand and arm of a human, with skin stretched between the very long finger bones and the body to form the wing membrane.
• Bats are generally small, most weighing less than 100 grams.
• Very few predators specialise on bats - The main bat predators are owls, hawks, and falcons, and snakes.
Bat Life Cycle
• Female bats give birth to generally one or two babies, usually only once per year.
• Many species will give birth just before the rainy season when climate and food resources are optimal.
• Some species will breed anytime of the year.The care and feeding of young bats is exclusively the responsibility of the female.
• From a very young age, baby bats produce vocalisations that can be recognised by the mother.
• Females of smaller species generally leave their young in the nursery roost while they forage, while larger bats may carry them on feeding flights.
• For their size, bats are relatively long-lived mammals, some species have been recorded as living at least 30 years.
Why are bats important?
African bats are under-studied, underappreciated, and under severe threat, despite their provision of essential ecological services. Several studies have highlighted bat diversity and abundance as key indicators of habitat disturbance, environmental change, and potential conservation value.
Bats also perform vitally important roles as seed dispersers, pollinators and predators. Certain bats can consume up to 500 insects per night! With nearly 200 million people in the world afflicted with malaria, and 85% of those in African countries, the contribution that bats make to reduce the number of insects that transmit disease should not be underestimated.
Bats are therefore key to ecosystem services for both humanity and the planet, and should be included in conservation plans aimed at preserving the integrity of ecosystems.
Declining bat populations may compromise critical ecosystem services, therefore understanding their conservation status is vital.
What is threatening them?
Bats are members of the order Chiroptera, one of the most diverse and widely distributed groups of animals. Bat populations are declining worldwide. The rapid increase in human populations, with the related habitat loss and degradation poses the most serious threat to bat populations. This is often greatest in countries where people live in rural areas in high poverty. In Africa these threats are increasing with the annual population increasing more rapidly than that of any other continent.
Another problem is direct killing of bats, either for food, to protect fruit crops or as a result of superstitions or problems with roosts in houses or public buildings.
Despite high diversity and the importance of bats to African biodiversity, the ecology and status of most African bat species are poorly known.
Check out our species profiles on the Bat species of Malawi page.