10:27 a.m. November 2, 2013

Bats: A Love Story

For the second of my Halloween explainers, a chat about bats.

The first bat I ever handled was a small flower bat, Glossophaga soricina. Much to my delight - and his utter dismay - he’d flown into one of the whisper-thin mist nets near the blooming banana trees. All 9 grams of him were furious, his open mouth screaming for fingers in the dark. He appeared to move at a flicker rate too high for me to see, the pointed tip of his leafnose quivering in the wet Pacific air.

I heard his quiet chirping as I gently extended his fingers; the soft membrane of his wing looked like sheer leather under my headlamp. As I measured his forearm, his rage cooled to apparent indignation; he looked cross, but was no longer thrashing. Finished recording the desired quantifiables, and grateful for his stillness, I took one last moment to memorize him, a long rostrum for nosing into flowers, a rounded body for the rapid processing of nectar and pollen, a mouthful of impossibly tiny, perfect teeth. I turned off my lamp and waited for his vision to normalize before handing him back to the sky, marveling at his small black eyes that see what I cannot: the emission of ultraviolet light by certain night-blooming flowers.

It was one of those glorious moments when “filled with wonder” takes a literal turn, my body suddenly overpacked and chest tight, struggling to contain shrieking joy knocking at my throat. My wonder spilled out of me like the red light pouring from my headlamp, smiling so hard that muscles at the back of my skull began to cramp.

I am well aware that this is an atypical reaction to bat contact.

I did not grow up with a love for bats. Not to imply a strong dislike of the flying mammals, my thoughts on bats were largely nonexistent, thinking about bats about as much as racoons think about whales. But things change and I got lucky. Through a dull series of academic scheduling woes, I stumbled into a deep and abiding appreciation for bats, finding my love for them with the sputtering grace of a bleary traveler who, ripping open hotel blackout curtains, faces an onslaught of midday photons.

It all sounds terribly dramatic, I know. However, fifteen minutes into an upper-level university course on bats and I knew I was doomed to become the kind of person who talks to strangers at parties about Chiropterans. (I was correct in my vision.) And in the spirit of Halloween, today I’m taking it one step further: today, I’m the kind of person who talks to strangers on the internet about bats.

Which is why I’m sitting in a coffee shop with Chris Nicolay, my former research advisor and professor of that bat class. It’s completely his fault that I’m like this. Outside the window, several pugs in costume flip and wiggle on a stretch of pink carpet as I scribble the path of our conversation in my notebook. The soundtrack inside the joint is festive, all 80’s synth horror movie themes and campy monster-related pop songs. Our bat talk will be right at home.

After a brief chat about another one of our mutual interests (“...and just like that, in comes a huge bloated cow carcass! You’d love it.”) we get to the flying mammals. What’s his biggest pet peeve when it comes to public misconceptions about bats?

“Rabies.” A pug outside the window begs in a tutu. “You know, the idea that all bats are dangerous.”

I nod. While I did get pre-exposure prophylactic rabies vaccinations before doing hands-on work with bats, that has more to do with the utter fatality of the disease than my chances of encountering it. In reality, less than one half of one percent of North American bats will contract rabies.

I mention the enduring fallacy that bats are rodents.

“I really think that speaks more to people not understanding what a rodent is. I mean, a shrew isn’t a rodent. A mole isn’t a rodent. Just because things are small and furry doesn’t make them a rodent.” There is a very small and fuzzy black puppy bounding around in my sight lines that meets the layperson definition of rodent.

So you know, bats belong to the mammalian order Chiroptera, which literally translates to hand wing. Comprised of around one thousand different species, bats constitute a quarter of all mammalian species on earth. They fly with their hands, which absolutely amazes me, their wings made of elongated fingers connected by a thin membrane. They exhibit a dazzling array of diversity: what they eat, how they look, how they mate, where they live, how they use echolocation, and that’s just a start. In one family, the leaf-nosed bats (Phyllostomidae), there are huge carnivorous bats that hunt prey as large as dove-sized birds, and impossibly tiny flower bats with specialized tongues featuring mop-like tips for soaking up nectar that weigh less than 10 grams, and insectivorous bats with hearing so good they can hear the footsteps of a cricket, and the only three sanguivorous bats in the world. For perspective, I present the Canidae family, which is comprised of dog-like mammals and foxes.

“When you tell someone you study bats, they inevitably tell you about the one time a bat got into their house. It’s the same as when I tell people I’m from Kansas and they say ‘Oh, I drove through there once.’”

Chris is mocking the dramatic and overblown retellings of chance bat encounters. It’s a common response, the poor “suffers” reliving what was, to them, a very traumatic and dangerous situation. These stories often involve bat-swatting weapons. “You never hear stories like that about robins.”

The image of someone hysterically trying to hit a bluebird with a tennis racket comes to mind. It is ridiculous. The image of someone doing the same to a bat? Seems rather normal.

“But people love birds, you know. Our sensory realms are so similar.”

With their color vision, vocalizations in the range of human hearing, conspicuous displays, and general prevalence in daily life, birds endear themselves to the humans who get to experience the pleasure of observing them. You can see them in zoos, people keep them as pets, the talented vocal mimics among them further anthropomorphizing our feathered friends. And since we see them, we understand their inherent diversity; no one mistakes a Cooper’s Hawk for a Ruby-throated hummingbird, nor would we assume that all birds are the same.

But bats are so fundamentally other, that basic curiosity is never sparked. North American bats are nocturnal; while they do see, their principal sensory apparatus is echolocation, shrieking and clicking at frequencies silent to human ears. During the day, they roost, up and away from human eyes. Their behavior is hidden; they work the graveyard shift, quiet saviors of midwestern agriculture as they feast upon the pests that threaten our dinners. While they swoop and dive across the sky at dusk, forever engaged in an arms race against the moths who jam their sonar, they all look so… similar. They make terrible zoo exhibits.

“If it’s not a zoo animal, people think you’re kind of weird if you study it.” He says this as next to us, a Yorkie in a yellow slicker shivers on its owner’s lap. Weird is relative.

In other parts of the world, where the magnificent Old World flying foxes live, bats enjoy a better reputation. The flying foxes are the charismatic megafauna of the bat world, with dog-like faces and gregarious personalities. Diurnal flying foxes, chattering in the trees, feasting on fruit and soaring overhead are as visible as they are charming. Who hasn’t seen a picture of a smiling Queensland foster parent, with a row of swaddled, orphaned flying foxes?

I point out that if flying foxes are the dolphins of the bat world, the, the Phyllostomid Wrinkle-faced Bat (Centurio senex) is one of those fucked up deep ocean weirdos. I say this because C. senex has facial morphology that makes it look like a penis decomposing in water that has begun to get slippery and baggy.

Chris rather excitedly points out that the macerated dick face of C. senex even has its own foreskin. He mimes the fleshy skin mask they can use to cover their face as costumed pugs dance for treats behind him. Actually, come to think of it, C. senex kind of look like wet pugs.

The Halloween decor reminds me. I once crawled into the trunk of a hollowed out garlic tree with Chris. Inside, near some short-tailed fruit bats (Carollia perspicillata), was a common vampire bat. The irony of finding vampire bats in a garlic tree was not lost on me.

Despite what nightmarish seasonal cinema would have you suspect, vampire bats are truly the only parasitic mammals in existence. Of the three species, one is an avian specialist, one prefers mammals, and one will do both. All three live in South and Central America, and no where else. The common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, so named for the portly belly it gets when feeding, has enjoyed a boom in population thanks to modern livestock farming. You’ve no doubt seen its mugshot inappropriately used for an article on bats that has nothing to do with these blood specialists.

My favorite blood specialist, however, is the white-winged vampire, Diaemus youngi. Why? Because this little sneaky fuck does something incredible: chick mimicry. As researcher Bill Schutt observed, the bat will boldly crawl up to a chicken, risking a fatal peck. Once close, the bat nuzzles the hen’s breast, relaxing the her. The vampire creeps in closer and closer, pressing into the highly vascularized area of her brood patch. The hen then responds in maternal fashion, fluffing out her feathers and getting comfortable over her “chick” - and providing a hot meal for the hungry bat.

Back amid the dogs in costumes and spooky music, I wonder aloud how viscerally weird it would be to have bat-like proportions. (This quickly becomes a really fun game.)

For example, if the average American male had testes that were proportional to body mass like those of the Texan Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, each testicle would be the equivalent of a healthy newborn baby. And what if humans had common vampire bat thumbs? Those bats use their thumbs to spring their bodies into the air for flight; using height-reached relative to body size, it would be like an adult human using only their thumbs to launch themselves 68 feet into the air. If humans had bat knees, they would bend backwards, as your feet would have never rotated forward in utero. Also, and perhaps weirdest of all, you’d fly with giant hands.

As I leave, I promise to link to the bat fellatio study. See, the study’s authors actually added music to their video footage of the research subjects. And if grainy fruit bat porn featuring terrible techno music doesn’t say “Happy Halloween”, then I guess I’m just not sure what does.