Hang on, do those cuddly bats really purr in your hand?

 

Bats make excellent pets and will even purr in the hands of their owners, according to a Dublin zoologist and bat expert.

In a study to be published in the journal Science today, Dr Emma Teeling of UCD's Department of Zoology says bats are "lovely creatures" which are actually very friendly.

Acknowledging their bloodthirsty reputation, Dr Teeling admits that some bats hanker after a quick bite and a drop of the red stuff.

But for the most part they are engaging creatures that can make good pets.

"I think they are absolutely beautiful. I also think they have had terrible bad press. People are frightened of them," said Dr Teeling, who is the lead author of the report on bats.

She said bats have a soft side; they are loving mothers and constantly groom their pups. Injured bats that are hand-reared by humans can become pets.

"They recognise people and will purr in the hands of their owners," Dr Teeling said. "They are wonderful creatures, actually very friendly."

Dr Teeling and colleagues from the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, have studied the genetic make-up of bats and have built for the first time a comprehensive family tree for the creatures. "It is the first time every bat family has been included in the family tree," she said.

The work significantly changes previous attempts to define relatedness between the 1,100 known bat species.

The researchers also linked the known bat fossil record with the new genetic study, showing how today's bats evolved from an original "protobat" about 64 million years ago.

"They are a ubiquitous lot, living everywhere on Earth bar Antarctica," she added. "They are wonderful creatures, and they exploit all niches."

Some eat fish, while others prefer fruit. They control insect populations by munching their way through thousands of them, and some bats enjoy flower nectar, making them very important plant pollinators.

Admittedly the true vampire bats do work against this otherwise cuddly image. They feed on blood, but only tiny amounts, Dr Teeling said.

Vampire bats are of great interest to scientists, who believe that the anticoagulants in the bat's saliva may provide a treatment for heart-attack and stroke victims.