Why Are Bats the Only Flying Mammals?

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Reconstruction of Palaeochiropteryx (Wiki Commons / Obisian Soul)

Why Bats Are One of Evolution’s Greatest Puzzles

by Riley Black/Smithsonian.com

Listen carefully on a quiet summer night and you might hear them. Even if you don’t see a bat’s frantically fluttering form, you might catch its high-pitched chirp as it searches the night for dinner. You’re probably hearing a little brown bat, a common insect-eater found throughout North America, but it is just one of more than a thousand species of bat ranging from the one-inch-long Kitti’s hog-nosed bat to the enormous, three-pound giant golden-crowned flying fox.

Large or small, bats suffer a reputation problem. Aside from being associated with vampires, they’re often called “flying rats” and blamed for the spread of zoonotic diseases into humans (including COVID-19, though whether that blame is founded is as of yet unclear.) This fear often overshadows the fascinating fact that bats are the only mammals to have evolved powered flight, and they’ve been flapping around for tens of millions of years. Where, then, did these flying oddities come from?

Bats pop up in the fossil record around 50 million years ago during a time known as the Eocene. Paleontologists have recovered remains ranging from teeth and bits of jaw to stunning full skeletons in places as far-flung as Wyoming, Paris, Australia and India’s Vastan Mine.

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Biography
Carol graduated from Riverside White Cross School of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio and received her diploma as a registered nurse. She attended Bowling Green State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Literature. She attended the University of Toledo, College of Nursing, and received a Master’s of Nursing Science Degree as an Educator.

She has traveled extensively, is a photographer, and writes on medical issues. Carol has three children RJ, Katherine, and Stephen – two daughters-in-law; Suzy and Katie – two granddaughters; Isabella Marianna and Zoe Olivia – and one grandson, Alexander Paul. She also shares her life with husband Gordon Duff, many cats, and two rescue pups.

Carol’s Archives 2009-2013
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8 COMMENTS

  1. Why are Bats the only flying mammals – because any mammal that flys is currently called a bat.
    Parallel progenesis suggests the tiny insectivorous bats developed separately from the large fructivores.
    Birds developed much earlier than bats and before them flying reptilians dominated the sky.
    Given time, in an undisturbed natural environment, mammals could develop more flying species. Perhaps some squirrels are already on that path.

  2. “Why are bats the only flying mammals?”

    That’s like asking “Why are penguins the only aquatic birds?” or, more analogously, “Why are sparrows the only flying birds?”.

    Answer: Bats are NOT the only flying mammals.

    The source of this logical dilemma is a marvellous piece of circular reasoning, in that if we see a flying mammal, then (because “bats are the only flying mammals”) it must be a bat.

    The solution is to simply let go of the conviction that “bats are the only flying mammals”, and recognise that everything that is warm-blood, hairy and flies is not necessarily a bat.

    Bats are a genetically related family of mammals which have leathery wings and the ability to fly, but they also have some other distinguishing features not common to other mammals – for example, the remarkable ability to echo-locate and hunt their prey using sonar, facilitated in part by their specialized cranal and ear structures.

    But these peculiar flying mammals, “bats”, are not the only ones with leathery wings and the ability to fly. Those creatures known colloquially in Australia & elsewhere as “flying foxes”, otherwise known as “fruit bats”, are NOT in the same family as the ugly little sonar-hunters correctly defined as “bats”. In fact, genetically speaking, flying foxes are far more closely related to lemurs than to bats. Flying foxes are flying mammals, and they are NOT bats. It would make much more sense to call them “flying lemurs” than to call them “bats”, in the same way as it is to call a duck a duck than to call it a sparrow.

    BUT if we are going to persist with the circular reasoning that anything with hair that flies is a bat, in the same vein as “anything with feathers that files is a sparrow”, then there’s really no point in even asking “Why are bats the only flying mammals?” when that’s the way we’ve defined it.

  3. When i was a little kid (1986), we moved to Belorussian Republik from GDR. I was a blond, light like a sour cream. And when it was dark in the evening, we played in the yard and saw many bats, hunting insects in the air. The elder kids told me that bats are attracted by light things: clothes, hair, etc.and they can definitely attack me, ’cause of blond hair. I believed that tales and was very cautious 😁😁😁

  4. In the pantheon of time, Bats are found in a couple places, one is the ‘primordial idea of the earth’ and another is the periodic portal of “spirit world” or Halloween, incidentally the period of time Bob Kane who created Batman was born. Caves have always been considered sacred places , the mothers womb, and the sky has always been “father’, and the bats are the special mammals that can travel between the two. The sky being the everlasting, unrestrained freedom, and the earth the underworld. The strongest connection between the two is in the fall, where both life from the bounty of harvest exists, side by side with the death of the plants and the shortening of the days. To mess with Bats, has always been considered, a dual with Death itself. The test of the Bat House, a component of the journey to Xibalba.

    • Guano can be used for explosives ‘death” or life ‘fertilizer’. It could be said, the test of the Bat House, is one of control of fear, and endurance of light. The cycle of life from the womb to the sky, is fraught with perils and choices. Bats are to be left alone, as they are neither prey nor enemy. They have something else going on.