Debunking the Myth: Bats Are Not Blind

Did you know the old saying ‘blind as a bat’ is scientifically incorrect? It’s a commonly held myth that bats lack vision and navigate solely through echolocation. However, bats have eyes and bats are not blind. Contrary to popular belief, they can see pretty well.

Our journey into the world of bats will first take us through the anatomy of bat eyes, providing insight into how these creatures see. We’ll then debunk the myths about bat vision, such as the widely held belief that bats are entirely blind. Finally, we will explore how bats use their vision in the navigate the world.

How cute are these lil bats. And check out those eyes...bats are not blind
Check out those cute bat eyes — bats are not blind! Photo 190090579 © Prasert Krainukul |

Anatomy of Bat Eyes

Structure and Function

Bats have a unique eye structure tailored to their nocturnal lifestyle. This eye structure enables them to navigate and forage in low-light conditions. Despite having relatively small eyes in proportion to their body size, these are highly specialized. The retina of bats is equipped with rod photoreceptors, which make night vision possible. This adaptation allows bats to see in conditions that appear pitch-black to humans.

Interestingly, bats also possess cone photoreceptors, which are essential for daylight and color vision. Research has revealed that species like Pallas Long-Tongued Bat and Seba’s Short Tailed Bat have significant amounts of cones in their retinas. These cones express two types of visual pigments or opsins—shortwave-sensitive (S) and longwave-sensitive (L). Interestingly, many cones express exclusively S opsin, which is tuned to ultraviolet (UV) light, enhancing bats’ ability to see in this spectrum.

In addition, bats benefit from a feature called the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina. This layer enhances vision under low light by reflecting light back through the retina — the classic glow-in-the-dark eyes that cats also have. This adaptation is particularly effective in maximizing the limited light available at night.

Comparison with Other Mammals

When compared to other mammals, bats’ visual capabilities are quite distinct. While most mammals have eyes better suited for daylight with more advanced color vision, bats have evolved eyes that prioritize sensitivity over color discrimination. This is evident from their high concentration of rod cells, which are more sensitive to low light levels but do not support rich color vision.

In mammals, typically, two cone populations determine color vision with absorption at short (blue or ultraviolet) and long (green or red) wavelengths. However, in bats, especially the microchiropteran types that rely heavily on echolocation, the eyes are adapted primarily for dim light or night conditions.

This anatomical specialization supports bats’ natural roles, such as night-time foraging and avoiding predators. Additionally, the placement of bats’ eyes on the sides of their heads grants them a wide field of view. This is crucial for navigation and detecting prey during flight. Despite their small size and the emphasis on night vision, the presence of cones and UV sensitivity suggest that bats are not merely creatures of the night but also engage with their environment during twilight. They use their vision for orientation and even locating UV-reflecting flowers—a critical task for nectar-feeding species.

Debunking the Myths About Bat Vision

Historical Origins of the ‘Blind as a Bat’ Myth

The phrase “blind as a bat” has woven its way into common language and is often used to tease someone about their poor eyesight. However, this saying does not reflect the true visual capabilities of bats. The myth likely originated due to bats’ nocturnal nature and remarkable ability to navigate the dark without seeing. This led to assumptions about their lack of vision. And, the assumption that they couldn’t move around well during the day because they had no eyesight.

Scientific Evidence Disproving the Myth

Contrary to the widespread belief, bats are not blind. In fact, research and observations have consistently shown that bats have good eyesight. According to the National Park Service, some species of fruit bats possess vision three times better than humans. These bats, which do not rely on echolocation, have large eyes that enable them to see and navigate effectively at night. They use their vision along with their sense of smell to locate food, particularly fruits.

Echolocation, another remarkable ability of most bats, further dispels the myth of blindness. This sophisticated biological sonar system allows bats to emit sound waves. The sound waves bounce off objects and return echoes that the bats interpret to understand their surroundings. This capability is crucial for navigating and hunting in complete darkness, where vision may be limited. It’s important to note that echolocation is not a substitute for vision but rather a complementary sensory mechanism that enhances their navigation.

Studies have shown that even bats that rely heavily on echolocation can still see objects as small as a centimeter from a meter away. This ability is crucial for helping them detect predators and obstacles, and orient themselves using large landmarks. The persistence of the blindness myth undermines the complexity and efficiency of bats’ sensory systems.

How Bats Use Their Vision in the Wild

Despite the misconceptions surrounding their visual capabilities, bats are far from blind. In the wild, these nocturnal mammals utilize a sophisticated blend of vision and echolocation to navigate and hunt, showcasing impressive adaptations to their low-light environments.

Night Vision Capabilities

Bats are equipped with eyes that are highly attuned to the dark. Their retinas are densely packed with rod photoreceptors, maximizing their ability to see in low-light conditions. This is crucial for their nocturnal activities, allowing them to effectively locate roosts and avoid predators under the cover of night. Even in what humans would perceive as pitch darkness, bats can make out fine details of their surroundings. This night vision is not just about sensitivity; it’s about survival.

Interaction with Echolocation

While bats’ eyesight plays a critical role in their daily activities, echolocation is equally vital, especially when hunting. Bats emit ultrasonic sound waves that bounce off objects, creating echoes the bats analyze to map out their surroundings. This method is particularly useful for capturing prey or navigating through complex environments where visual cues are minimal.

For instance, the Egyptian fruit bats use echolocation in conjunction with vision to identify and classify objects around them. Studies have shown that these bats can switch dynamically between visual or echolocation information depending on what they’re doing. Echolocation is used when flying towards an obstacle, allowing them to adjust their flight path accurately. Alternately, they might rely more heavily on their sight during the day or when it works the best in their surroundings.

This dual sensory approach is not just about using one sense over the other; it’s about integrating both to maximize efficiency and precision. Using echolocation and vision in tandem allows bats to thrive in varied environments, from the darkest caves to moonlit skies.

Examples from Different Bat Species

Megabats, or Old-World fruit bats, are known for their reliance on vision and sense of smell rather than echolocation. Their eyes are larger and more prominent, adapted to their nighttime and dusktime activities, which involve foraging for fruits and navigating using visual landmarks. These bats often have a well-developed sense of color vision, which allow them to detect blue/UV light and green/red light, respectively.

On the other hand, microbats typically exhibit smaller, less conspicuous eyes. And, they rely primarily on echolocation for navigation and prey detection. However, variations exist even within this group. For instance, the tomb bat, which does not dwell in complete darkness and emerges before nightfall, has relatively normal-sized eyes. This suggests a greater reliance on dim-light vision, similar to that of megabats, and indicates a convergent evolution in their RH1 genes, crucial for low-light vision.

Role of Vision in Hunting and Navigation

While echolocation is paramount for many bat species, especially in complete darkness, vision plays a crucial role in other aspects of their life. Vision is primarily used for long-distance navigation and detecting landmarks, which is essential during seasonal migration or commuting between feeding sites. For example, bats can detect polarized light patterns, which are most pronounced at dusk and dawn, helping them navigate to and from their roosts.

While microbats rely heavily on echolocation to locate and capture fast-moving insect prey during hunting, their vision is not abandoned. Studies suggest that bats use their vision to complement echolocation, allowing them to navigate more effectively at high speeds or in less dark conditions where echolocation is less effective. This dual sensory strategy enhances their ability to adapt to different environmental conditions, ensuring their survival and efficiency as predators.

These unique visual adaptations underscore the complexity of bat sensory capabilities and debunk the common myth of bats being blind. By understanding these adaptations, we gain insights into the evolutionary pressures that have shaped the sensory systems of one of the most diverse groups of mammals.

How do bats navigate and hunt in the dark?

Bats utilize a method called echolocation to navigate and hunt in conditions of near total darkness. They emit high-pitched sounds and listen for the echoes that bounce back from objects. Their highly sensitive ears can detect variations in these echoes, enabling them to identify objects as fine as a human hair.

Are bats able to see during the day?

Yes, bats can see during the day. Although they primarily use their exceptional hearing to locate food in the dark, they also rely on their vision in daylight. Bats’ eyes are particularly adapted to low-light conditions, which are typical at dawn and dusk, allowing them to see well during these times.

Why do bats fly close to people?

Bats may occasionally fly near humans, but there is no need for alarm as they do not attack people. They often swoop close to the ground when hunting for insects or fruits near trees, which may bring them closer to humans. If their proximity makes you uncomfortable, it’s best to calmly move away.

Featured Photo: Australian Flying Fox, 41817854 © Kitchner Bain |