After Bram Stoker’s Dracula cemented the relationship between the bloodsucking monsters known as vampires and the airborne mammal that is the bat, these poor small furry creatures began to be looked upon with trepidation, fear and even superstitious disgust. Vampires had already been in existence in various mythologies around the world, centuries before Stoker penned his novel, yet the association with bats, which were already treated as mysterious creatures due to their nocturnal habits and appearance, further created an aura of gothic mystery around them.
Image source: Nature
Stoker had modeled his idea of the sanguinivorous vampire on three particular species of bat that are native to South America, which do in fact feed solely on blood as their primary source of food. There are more than 1,100 known species of bats around the world, and yet only some eleven to fourteen different species have been recorded flying around the Maltese Islands. Only four of these definitely breed here, as the others are mostly migratory.
The first time I ever saw a bat up close was during one summer in my childhood. The bats had come out as soon as the sun had set, and one had almost hit me in the head. Bats tend to fly quite low sometimes, and they’re known to be the only mammals whose body is naturally capable of true flight. They are warm-blooded, their forelimbs form webbed wings, and instead of flapping them as birds do, they flap their spread-out digits instead. These are very long and covered by a thin stretched membrane of skin. During the day, bats rest in dark sheltered places such as caves. They then emerge at sunset and spend most of the night foraging for food. Those found in Malta mostly eat insects.
Image source: Phys
Bats have very small eyes and a weak vision, yet they fly and capture their prey by emitting ultrasonic sounds and listening to the returning echoes reflected back towards their ears. This is called echolocation, and is based on the same principle as the radar.
The most common local species of bat is known as the Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrell), which is also the smallest bat found on the island. This bat shelters in dark narrow spaces and is frequently found close to human habitation.
Another common species is known as the Maghrebian Mouse-Eared Bat (Il-Farfett-il Lejl Widnet il-Ġurdien), so called because its ears are normally longer than they are wide. This species is usually found in groups in caves or catacombs.
Image source: Thecliffs
The other two breeding resident species are the Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Farfett il-Lejl tan-Nagħla Zgħira) – so called because a complex series of folds around the nostrils give it a horseshoe shape – and the Grey Long-Eared Bat (Farfett-il Lejl Widnejh Kbar), which is distinguished by its very long ears.
Image source: Thetimes
Paul Racey, Co-Chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission, stresses the need for better bat conservation as unfortunately, bats are disappearing at an alarming rate due to ignorance about their ecological benefits and the negative way they are portrayed.
MEPA’s Environmental Division, in collaboration with Heritage Malta, organises an annual event dedicated to educating and raising awareness about bats. This is most commonly known as Malta Bat Night, and usually takes place during the month of November.
Some areas where one can admire these nocturnal creatures around Malta and Gozo are the Lunzjata Valley in Kerċem, Gozo, as well as Buskett and Girgenti in Malta.