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KNOXVILLE — A new horror movie about bats exploits negative myths about the creatures and may make preserving them more difficult, said a UT biologist who studies bats.

The movie “Bats” now in theaters portrays a fictional Texas town attacked by mutant bats that have been engineered by a local scientist to drink human blood. It is being promoted on television for the Halloween season.

“The negative perceptions that people traditionally carry are one of bats’ chief threats,” said Dr. Gary McCracken, professor in the University of Tennessee-Knoxville department of ecology and evolutionary biology. “This is a horror movie that exploits the public’s lack of knowledge about the creatures.”

Many of the 1,000 species of bats worldwide are threatened or endangered, he said, and bat populations are in decline.

“There’s no such thing as a vampire bat. The movie distributor is just building hype. They know it’s a low-grade movie,” said McCracken, who viewed the Web site promoting the movie.

McCracken returned recently from a conference on bats in western Mexico that was sponsored by agricultural interests. He said that the tequila industry is concerned with the health of the bat population because some species pollinate the agave cactus that is used to make the liquor.

Bats in central Texas and northern Mexico also are credited with eating billions of corn ear worms, also known as the cotton boll worm, which is one of the most destructive agricultural pests in the United States, McCracken said. Bats feed on the worm, which feeds on corn, cotton and tomato crops.

McCracken said that an unnecessary fear of the mammals translates into outright destruction of bat roosts when people find them.

“Bats are killed even when they offer nothing but benefits to humans,” he said.

McCracken, who has been researching bat colonies in south central Texas since 1981, is the author of the entry on bats in the Encyclopedia of American Folklore and Superstition and has written extensively on bats and bat lore. He said that most of the myths about bats are the product of lack of knowledge.

Notions that rabid bats are a source of the infection in humans are an example of the misunderstandings, he said.

“You have to have the same public health concerns with bats that you have with any other wild animals,” McCracken said. Bats can contract rabies but very rarely transmit the disease to humans, he said.

“There are only about 1.5 deaths from rabies per year in the United States, and that’s from all sources. Only 6 percent of rabies cases in wildlife are in bats. Raccoons, skunks and foxes make up the vast majority.”

McCracken serves on the advisory board of Bat Conservation International, an organization devoted to preserving the mammals. He recommends contacting the organization in Austin, Texas, at http://www.batcon.org/ or (512)327-9721 for information about the preservation of bats and their beneficial economic and ecological effects.