A bat glides across the sky at sunset. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Michael Atkins thinks he was a bat in a past life. In fact, he said, human beings have more in common with nature’s only flying mammals than they realize. 

Atkins — nonprofit communications director by day, bat enthusiast by night — believes learning about the mysterious nightflyers opens Philadelphians up to better understanding their urban ecosystem, and themselves. He led a free bat walk in FDR Park on Saturday, Oct. 28.

Despite bats’ birdlike appearance, they’re more akin to other mammals, including humans. Like people, they have five fingers, teeth, and mammary glands. They form established social circles and take turns caring for their young. 

“If a genie granted you the wish to fly, you would have bat wings tomorrow,” Atkins said. Bats have work shifts, morning routines, and favorite “restaurants” (streetlights swarming with moths). 

A nocturnal creature himself, Atkins moonlights as a vigilante bat researcher. He volunteers with conservation groups like Friends of FDR Park and others across the country to study bats’ habits and vouch for their importance. 

Wildlife experts and advocates say bats help humans by eating crop-killing and disease-carrying insects. One colony of 150 big brown bats in Indiana ate more than one million insects in a year, per a study in the journal Science. Researchers estimated the bats’ pest control services saved anywhere from $3.7 to $30 billion annually for the agriculture industry in North America.  

As ambassadors of “spooky season” associated with blood-sucking vampires, the brighter side of bats is underexplored. But if bats get a bad rap, said Philadelphia nature writer Bernard Brown, so do the bugs they eat. 

“I get real frustrated because… there’s actually a very short list of detrimental insects,” said Brown, author of “Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons.” While mosquitos, some caterpillars, and spotted lanternflies can cause real damage, other bugs like wasps and spiders help cull dangerous species alongside their better-loved avian counterparts. 

Instead of viewing bats — or any other animal, for that matter — through the lens of what they offer human beings, Brown says we should appreciate Philadelphia’s non-human residents because they help make the city the diverse urban ecosystem that it is. 

“They are neighbors more than they are guests,” he said. 

Philadelphia’s storied brick and stone architecture provides pockets of dark space for roosts, communal holes where bats hide during the day. Pennsylvania is home to nine bat species, according to the Pa. Game Commission, three of which flee south during the colder months. 

There’s another reason to love bats, Brown said: “Just how damn cool they are.” 

Some of their quirks are well-known, such as their use of echolocation. Like dolphins and a host of other animals, bats use a kind of natural sonar to navigate space and hunt for prey. Each species has its own audio signature

More misunderstood is bats’ coevolutionary rivalry with moths. A long-cited theory that moths evolved to detect echolocation pings in an auditory arms race against predatory bats has come under scrutiny in recent years. But however they do it, moths have figured out (over tens of millions of years) how to emit sounds that deter bats from eating them, or confuse their detection signals altogether, per a study in the scientific journal PNAS. 

With over 1,400 species, bats are one of the planet’s most prevalent and diverse orders of mammals. But climate change and habitat disruption are threatening bat populations, even as some species have adapted to city life. Another menace is a fungal infection called White Nose Syndrome, a disease discovered in 2006 that has since decimated the populations of several bat species in North America. 

If you see a bat on the sidewalk, Brown recommends using sticks — not bare hands — to move it to a safer spot, like a nearby bush or green space. If they have found their way into your house or attic, give them a one-way exit strategy and call in the experts if you need help. 

Zane Irwin is a fall 2023 intern with WHYY's PlanPhilly.