Bats are incredible, unique and underappreciated mammals that supply important roles in the ecosystem. Many suburbanites fail to recognize just how common bats are in their lives; bats’ high-pitched squeals tend to blend into other twilight sounds, and the fluttering black figure in the night sky could just as easily be a swallow or a nighthawk as it is a bat.
Yet, when you come to a continent like Africa where nature is often so much more visible, bats begin to reveal their piece in the puzzle of the great natural order. Africa has around 321 species of bats — around 25% of known global bat species — which help pollinate and plant some of the continent’s most characteristic flora while others manage insect populations to the delight of its fauna.
You can read on to learn about the different types of bats you can encounter during a twilight safari in Africa and hopefully come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of just how amazing and essential the bats of Africa bats can be.
All About the Bats of Africa
Bats are members of the order Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing” in Greek. They are the only mammals capable of sustaining true flight, whereas other animals like “flying” squirrels can only glide for short distances. Bats fly by using their hands, which have been modified over millions of years of evolution to have long, thin bones connected by leathery wings or “patagium.”
You can find bats in Africa all throughout the continent except in the arid, non-forested regions around the Sahara and Kalahari deserts. They tend to roost in large colonies at the tops of tall trees, although some live in caves like their New World counterparts.
There are over 1,200 species of bats worldwide, making them the second-most diverse mammalian order following rodents. Because bats require small, light, delicate bones to enable their flight, our fossil record of bats is spotty at best. The earliest records recovered date back 52.5 million years ago, when bats had already developed the capability to fly but lacked the echolocation abilities seen in modern microbats.
This discovery makes sense given that bats show several distinct differences at the genus level. Breaking these differences down into broad terms, we have the fruit-eating megabats with their more fox-like heads; and microbats, which have smaller heads, large ears and wrinkled noses — all of which make it easier for them to use high-pitched sound waves to locate insect prey.
Africa has these two types of bats as well as examples of more specific families of bats, which you can learn more about below.
Types of Bats in Africa
- Fruit bats have fox-like heads and typically feed on nectar from flowers and fruits. The most widespread fruit bat species in Africa is the straw-coloured fruit bat, which lives in colonies of over 100,000.
- Horseshoe bats use their radar-dish-like noses to emit high-pitched squeaks, helping them find their insect prey.
- Old World leaf-nosed bats have specialized nose shapes like horseshoe bats that tend to be more textured, similar in appearance to a dead leaf.
- False vampire bats are relatively large insect-eating bats with very prominent ears and a large, pointy nose. Africa has only one species: the yellow-winged false vampire bat.
- Sheath-tailed bats are tiny bats with pointed faces and small tails covered in a sheath. The Egyptian tomb bat is one famous example, and its habitat range follows the Nile down to Ethiopia, although it appears in other areas of Africa and India.
- Slit-faced bats have a split nose and tall ears. The Egyptian slit-faced bat is spread throughout Africa and the Middle East.
- Free-tailed bats are small, agile flyers that have some of the fastest flying speeds of any bats. They are also noted for their dog-like faces that resemble mastiff breeds.
- Long-fingered bats have bonier-looking arms and more noticeable digits at the tops of their wings. They tend to live in more arid regions than Africa’s other bats.
- Vesper or “common” bats include the largest and most diverse range of bat species.
Meet Africa’s Bats
You can go see bats on safari in the early morning or at dusk as they venture out to find their food. You can also learn about how fruit bats help pollinate and spread seeds for some of the most important plant species we have.
Take a look at our safari vacation packages today to book your trip and meet your new flying, furry, squinty, squeaky friends.
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa