Batty about bats

Last updated 09:51 14/06/2012

One of the phrases that I use all the time is that New Zealand is the "land without teeth" (I pinched that soundbite from Professor David Bellamy who used it when making "Moa's Ark"  twenty years ago).

We say "land without teeth" because New Zealand has no native land mammals. Except of course, that creature of the night, the bat.  We have two native species of bat in New Zealand, the long-tailed and the short-tailed bat.  We had another species - the greater short-tailed bat, but we lost that after a rat plague on Big South Cape Island in Southland.

Short-tailed bat close up (Brian Lloyd)

Both species of bats are endangered, but the long-tailed bats are more common. They're the ones you may have been lucky enough to see at dusk, swooping out from some willows perhaps, or flitting past in the moonlight.  The short-tailed bats are ancient and very mysterious, only appearing under the cover of darkness. Short-tailed bats are from a different family of bats, and the last remaining species of that kind.

Short-tailed bats are amazing because instead of heading to the sky to feed on insects like most bats around the world (including the long-tailed bats), they swoop out of their colonies at night, fly DOWN to the ground, fold up their wings, and scrabble around on the forest floor on their elbows, eating nectar, invertebrates and fruit. Bizarre bat behaviour indeed, unless of course you evolved in New Zealand, the land without teeth, without native rodents, and therefore the forest floor provides a veritable smorgasbord of culinary delights.

Short-tailed bat kakabeak(Brian Lloyd)

What's also cool about these bats is that despite the fact that they are tiny (like mouse-sized, can fit in the palm of your hand), they fly a long way.  Individual bats can easily travel 50kms in a night, which doesn't take them too long, since they fly at around 60km/h. All of this travel, and regularly shifting colonies means bats actually need quite a lot of forest to survive. At least 150 square kilometres.  Habitat is hugely important to bats. So too is being safe from predators.

Holy bat-crimes batman!

...Is probably what the poor DOC ranger thought when she saw the scattered short-tailed bat wings around an ancient tree(nicknamed "the mothership") in a forest near Ruapehu on visiting the colony in March 2010.  Over the course of the week, an unknown assailant had repeatedly raided the colony eventually killing 102 of our native and endangered short-tailed bats.  After some excellent post-mortem CSI skills of Massey, they discovered a single cat was the culprit.  That story epitomises the fact that predators are having a huge impact on our native wildlife, not just our vulnerable birds, but also our only land mammals. So bats are yet another reason we need to keep on top of predators. What about you guys? Have you ever seen one of our native bats? where was it? what did you think?

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JM   #1   11:05 am Jun 14 2012

Very sad that I've never seen a NZ bat. Amazing little creatures.

Niri Tacen   #2   11:55 am Jun 14 2012

I'm sad because I've never seen our bats. Not in the wild, not in a wildlife centre, I have not seen them Sam-I-Am.

Can anyone suggest the best way (remember, I'm a city slicker) to view them?

I've managed to see most of our birds (including one very bold and ninja-like Kea who stole my Swiss Creme from my fingers one lunchtime at the skifield), but I haven't been privileged to see the bats. :-(

AKU   #3   11:58 am Jun 14 2012

Wow - so it actually looks as though the short tailed bat was on its way to becoming flightless - again. The mind boggles at the circular nature of this - especially given that a flightless bat would essentially be a rat - but current rats are exactly the reason why this wont now happen. I am getting dizzy!

LBV   #4   12:41 pm Jun 14 2012

Would love to know if there are any in the manawatu and what we can do to encourage them.

FDO   #5   01:02 pm Jun 14 2012

That's very sad about the cat. I keep wishing our native endangered creatures and birds would hurry up and evolve - DON'T hang round the ground! You've got wings, use them! It's a race between evolution and extinction.

Nicola Toki   #6   01:15 pm Jun 14 2012

It has occurred to me that most of you will not have encountered bats... ergo a bit hard to comment on - so tell ya what, watch this video and then tell me whether they float your boat or not!

TK   #7   04:41 pm Jun 14 2012

We have some in our gully in the city. Aparently you can build some "bat caves" and hang them in the trees to give them more homes. Would love to knowhow to do that for our gully :-)

NZ Batman   #8   10:05 pm Jun 14 2012

Some great words Nicola! Bats are my favourite of Aotearoa's native fauna. There's nothing better than seeing these little guys fly across the sky. I have worked with bats in both Auckland and Hamilton. There are regular bat tours in and near both cities if people are interested. Most people in New Zealand do not even know we have bats, so I have become a bat advocate...a batvocate! I have had so much interest I've started a bat fan page. Please visit, like and share:

Alan_Wilkinson   #9   10:43 am Jun 15 2012

A very interesting blog, Nicola. We have a lot of wildlife here but I've never heard of the bats. Do they live around the Bay of Islands?

Karlos   #10   11:16 am Jun 15 2012

Another interesting read on this blog.

My only experience with bats wasn't with a NZ native. I was doing a day of work experience at Auckland Zoo years ago and I had to clean out the Fruit Bat enclosure. The zoo keeper lady told me to put my hoodie on and I wondered why, but after a few minutes in the cage I heard flapping wings and then felt the bat land on my back. I carried on cleaning out the cage while the bat crawled all over me checking me out. Pretty cool experience.

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