Bat Bites Bird ... in Migration Attacks

By Milius, S. | Science News, August 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bat Bites Bird ... in Migration Attacks


Milius, S., Science News


Fighter-pilot dogfights no longer blaze across the night skies of Europe, but other fliers may still duel to the death up there. Researchers in Spain propose that bats hunt down migrating birds in midair.

The biggest bat in Europe, the greater noctule, or Nyctalus lasiopterus, eats many birds during the spring and fall migrations, says Javier Juste of Donana Biological Station in Seville. He and his colleagues reached that conclusion after analyzing 14,000 bat droppings during the course of a year.

"It's the only bat known to get the profit of migrating birds," Juste says. Birds by the millions stream over Europe between winter havens in Africa and northerly breeding grounds. For a predator, the mass of birds is "a big, big chocolate bar coming by," Juste says.

Most of the world's bats dine on insects or fruit. Yet a handful can take on bigger and livelier prey, swooping down to pluck fish out of the water, silence a frog in midcroak, or grab a lizard off a wall. Around a dozen bat species, mostly in the tropics, snatch roosting birds from their perches, says Juste. He suspects that the greater noctule doesn't wait for its meal to come home to roost. Several lines of evidence suggest that this bat attacks birds on the wing, say Juste, his Donana colleague Carlos Ibanez, and their coauthors in the Aug. 14 PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES.

Three noctule populations take advantage of birds' seasonal migrations, the researchers report. As many as 45 percent of the analyzed droppings carried feathers during the March-to-May and August-to-November runs. On two occasions, researchers found bats with, or near, identifiable bits from a European robin or a warbler. In June and July, the bats went back to eating insects, and barely 1 percent of bat droppings had feathers.

Several traits suggest that the greater noctule specializes in long-range hunting, the researchers find. …

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