Popular culture doesn’t always portray bats in a favorable light. In many of the stories we consume about bats, they’re spooky and scary animals commonly spotted in the horror genre. When bats populate a scene, it’s usually bad news for the characters.
Most recently, the world’s only flying mammal species have been in the limelight again due to the inconclusive rumors that the SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic — originated from bats.
However, these evolution-bending animals are among the world’s most fascinating: They don’t have natural predators and can eat thousands of pests, which saves farmers USD 3 billion per year in the United States alone, according to a governmental estimate. They pollinate over 500 plant species, including favorites like bananas, avocados, and mangos.
Bats are also vital in understanding how diseases work and spread: They have extremely sophisticated super immune systems, which means they can live beyond 40 years, making them the longest-living mammal for body size. (For comparison, a similarly-sized mouse lives only 18 months.)
Bats, Biodiversity, and the Built Environment
Studying bats has allowed the scientific community to gain a deeper understanding of various areas, including infectious diseases and longevity, sonar, echolocation, acoustics, aerodynamics, biodiversity, and now, even urban design.
In contrast to being creepy or dangerous, bat populations are clean, social, intelligent — and good for us. According to a growing body of research, bats love cities, can thrive in them, and can even help us improve them.
There’s evidence that diminishing biodiversity threatens the quality of human life and accelerates the risk of disease outbreaks — which is why protecting, studying, and analyzing urban bat populations can support the design of healthy and livable cities.
Bats & Big Data
Prof. Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University College London, uses bats as a springboard to make sense of how cities can be re-designed in a way that is better for both humans and nature.
“The idea is that if we can understand the health of bat populations in our cities, then we can understand a lot about the health of the environment more generally — a healthy bat population indicates good biodiversity,” Prof. Jones says to Nature.
The World Health Organization states that continued urbanization and environmental degradation might lead to cities becoming epicenters of disease transmission. Nevertheless, by tapping into big data about bats and mapping urban biodiversity, it’s possible to gain a deeper understanding of where disease outbreaks might happen and predict which areas might be infection hotspots.
The analysis of bat population trends can further inform urban designers about issues such as air, noise, and light pollution or soil and water quality.
Betting on Bats For a Better Future
“Ecologists and architects need to talk to each other about the design of our cities,” adds Prof. Jones. Given its countless socio-economic, health, and well-being benefits, there’s no doubt urban biodiversity conservation is an invaluable public health investment.
Bats are a small yet crucial part of urban biodiversity. All the urban design elements that support bat populations, such as green areas, urban wetlands, green roofs, and green infrastructure and buildings, also support us. When all the living beings in urban habitats thrive, so do our cities — and bats can show us the way.
Unlike in the horror genre, bats populating our cities couldn’t be better news.