Creepy Creatures #1: Ghost Bats!

Ghost Bat

Photo by Bruce Thompson

Happy October! To celebrate the spookiest month of the year, I’ll be posting a series of short articles on bats, cats, rats, and all kinds of creepy critters!

You may have heard of vampire bats, but have you heard of… GHOST BATS?

There are actually three species of bat with the word “ghost” in their name: the ghost bat of Australia, Macroderma gigas, the Northern ghost bat, Diclidurus albus, and finally the ghost-faced bat, Mormoops megalophylla.

Ghost bat! Photo by Gina Barnet.

The ghost bat (which is also, funnily enough, known as the false vampire bat) likely gets its name from its pale fur and adorable ghoulish expression. It is an Australian species that ranges in color from the sooty-grey Queensland morph to the near-white desert morph in the west.

It is a big bat, one of the largest members of microchiroptera with a two-foot (60 cm) wingspan. Insects alone don’t satisfy this ghost’s spiritual needs; it hunts small mammals, reptiles, frogs, birds, and even other bats. It is actually the only carnivorous bat in Australia.

Like their spooky namesake, ghost bats are elusive and very hard to spot.

by Merlin Tuttle

Northern ghost bat. Photo by Merlin Tuttle.

The Northern ghost bat is often mistaken for the similarly-colored Honduran white bat for their color and the fact that both have a habit of roosting on the undersides of palm leaves. Perhaps this is why it always has such an irritated look on its face- the two species are not even closely related.

The Northern ghost bat is found across Central and South America, though it is rare in all parts of its range. It’s a small fellow with a wingspan of up to three inches (7 cm). Despite this, it still manages to eat about 1,000 insects a night.

Unlike most bat species, the Northern ghost bat is solitary outside the breeding season and normally roosts by itself.

Art of a ghost-faced bat. Look up the real thing if you don’t believe me.

The ghost-faced bat is the only one in the group not named for its color, but rather that attractive countenance. It’s found from Texas to Venezuela, roosting in colonies up to 500,000 members strong. Just think of looking up and seeing 500,000 of those faces staring down at you from the ceiling.

It’s got a 15 inch wingspan and it eats insects, but you don’t really care, right? All you want to know is why, dear lord, why does its face look like that.

The answer is that nobody freakin’ knows. Seriously, I haven’t found so much as a theory as to why their faces look like that. There’s no sexual dimorphism between males and females, so it can’t have anything to do with mate choice, and as far as we know their insect diet isn’t particularly specialized to warrant unusual headgear… maybe it’s simply customary for baby ghost-faced bats to smash face-first into a cave wall on their first flight?

The best info I could dig up was the fact that there is a heavy concentration of sebaceous glands around the ghost-faced bat’s skin folds, so it may somehow be involved in scent communication. Who knows- there really hasn’t been too much research done on them.

The ghost-faced bat is actually a member of the genus Mormoopidae, which is a nice collection of uniquely hideous characters with such names as the sooty mustached bat or the big naked-backed bat.

Here is a sooty mustached bat. Charming. (Source.)

None of them really get to the level of the ghost-faced bat, of course. As far as scariness goes, it is the winner of this round.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the three spookiest bats of them all!

Next creepy creature!

To view a list of all my animal articles, head to the Nonfiction section.


Patrick the Ghost Bat

Sources/Further Reading

Hudson W.S., Wilson D.E (1986). “Macroderma gigas”Mammalian Species 260 (260): 1–4.

Lim, B., Miller, B., Reid, F., Arroyo-Cabrales, J., Cuarón, A.D. & de Grammont, P.C. 2008. Diclidurus albus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2.

Rezsutek, Michael and Guy N. Cameron. 1993. “Mormoops megalophylla”Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists) (448): 1–5.

Steinway, M. 2000. “Mormoops megalophylla”. Animal Diversity Web.

The Pekapeka-tou-poto

Oh, sure, the Western scientific community calls this species the “New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat,” but I think we can all agree that the Māori name is much better, especially since you can then call it a pekapeka for short.

Pekapeka. God, I’m so happy.

Sadly this was the only creative commons image of the pekapeka I could find, so I'll ask you to use your imagination for the rest of the article.

Scientific name: Mystacina tuberculata. Sadly this was the only creative commons image of the pekapeka I could find, so I’ll ask you to use your imagination for the rest of the article.

Ok, so what’s there to distinguish the pekapeka from the hundreds and hundreds of other tiny insect-eating bats? Well, for starters, they’re one of only three mammal species native to New Zealand. Second, they spend roughly 30% of their foraging time not flying, but walking on the ground.

If that doesn’t sound impressive to you, you clearly don’t understand how much bats suck at walking. Imagine a seal, right? Sleek and beautiful under the water, pudgy-ground humping wobblers on land. Same deal for the bat, only replace the water with the air.

Essentially a bat. (Photo by Andreas Trepte.

Essentially a bat. (Photo by Andreas Trepte.)

True, there are a few other bat species that are also good at walking, most notably the common vampire bat, which can not only walk but hop and run. But in terms of phylogeny the vampire bat is like a million light years removed from the pekapeka, which is more closely related to the not-so-great-at-the-walking-thing ghost-faced and mustache bats. And unlike the vampire bat, which uses its walking as a stealth maneuver to sidle up to sleeping hosts and give ’em a lil love bite, the pekapeka doesn’t drink blood.

No, the pekapeka may spend time on the ground for other reasons entirely. Remember, it lives in New Zealand, where there are only two other species of mammals (both bats) and no snakes, which means there are next to no terrestrial predators. New Zealand is also home to a lot of birds… and a lot of flightless birds, like the kiwi.

Could the pekapeka be on its way to being the first species of flightless bat?

Well, not if we drive it to extinction first, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

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Introduction to Chiroptera


I don’t know if you guys have noticed this, but I’m a pretty big fan of bats. I’ve been meaning to do a grand ole post on them for a while, and this seems to be the perfect season to do it. So I’d like to talk briefly about the incredible diversity within order Chiroptera.

QUICK BAT FACTS! Did you know….

  • Bats comprise about one-fifth of known mammal species?
  • The smallest known mammal is a bat? (Well, there’s also a shrew contender, but we’re going with the bat today.)
  • The largest bats have five-foot wingspans?
  • Tequila wouldn’t exist without bats? (One species pollinates the agave plant it’s made from.)
  • Some bats have nipples in their armpits?
  • NO bat species is blind?
  • Bats can live over 20 years?
  • Bats are highly intelligent, social animals?

Okay, let’s learn about bats.

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