All things bats and beautiful
For all the attention they get in the media (vampires!, Batman!, rabid winged rodents!), to say that bats are misunderstood is a massive understatement. Neither menacing nor a pest, these winged creatures-more closely related to primates than to rodents-are integral to our planet’s health. For starters, they were excelling at the nightly pest control business long before the Caped Crusader. One little brown bat can catch 1,000 mosquito-size insects in a single hour!
Once we’ve been reassured with some basic bat facts, author Mary Kay Carson invites us into Bracket Bat Cave, which hosts a mammoth colony of mother-and-pup Mexican free-tailed bats, for the inside look. Bat scientist Merlin Tuttle is our guide. He’s been interested in bats since he was nine; as a teenager, he observed gray bats around his home and realized his guidebook was wrong–they do migrate! Through his research and the foundation of Bat Conservation International (BCI), Merlin hopes to reshape our preconceived notions of bats through education and photography, including a stunning picture of a lesser long-nosed bat hovering, wings aloft in an invert arc, over a giant saguaro cactus flower (photos by Tom Uhlman).
In The Bat Scientists, Uhlman’s striking photographs are just as important as Carson’s text. Aside from breathtaking images of bats, aerials and macro closeups we would not get to see otherwise, Carson and Uhlman also show readers portraits of scientists at work: monitoring bats, holding bats, living on bat time. Ultimately, their goal isn’t to get us to like bats, but to appreciate how bats fit into the big picture. To make us care, they introduce us to people who are passionate about understanding and protecting bats. It’s way more effective than inundating us with cute pictures or weaving a sorry sob story on the plight of bats (although their tale is pretty sad.)
All wing-spans great and small
Bats come in two types: megabats and microbats. The biggest have wingspans up to 6 ft, like Malaysian flying fox bats. The tiniest, bumblebee bats, are lighter than a penny. Barbara French, science officer at BCI, rehabilitates bats of all sizes and ages. Once the bats are flight-worthy and able to catch bugs on their own, she releases them back to the wild. The ones that don’t recover completely become “bat ambassadors” to educate people about bats.
Protectors wise and wonderful
Many species of bats are endangered because of human ignorance and interference, but bat scientists are working very hard to protect bats. Part of their strategy is to take care of bat caves, where bats roost or hibernate. This section feels like National Geographic, with eye-opening but decipherable science writing. We follow bat scientists as they monitor temperature and moisture conditions, gate the entrances of Laurel Caves with horizontal steel bars that are spaced so bats but not humans can pass through, erect bat houses (which look like flattened birdhouses on stilts), and design bat towers (concrete versions of hollowed trees). Although Carson and Uhlman don’t say so explicitly, the scientists and conservationists really are like superheroes! A wonderful sentiment to instill in kids and adults!
And the bat protectors’ next adversary is a new threat called white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS, named for the white fungus that grows on the snout and wings of affected bats, causes hibernating bats to wake up prematurely before spring. Each time bats wake, they waste precious energy needed to last the winter. So far, steps are being taken to prevent the spread of WNS from cave to cave, but why WSN causes bats to wake up and how to cure it remain unknown.
The Lord God made them all
I don’t know if Cecil Alexander had bats in mind when she wrote the words to the Anglican hymn (I’m partial to the Rutter version) which James Herriot famously used to title his book series about his experiences as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire, but bats are truly amazing! And I’m not being biased simply because they can fly. Vampire bats have an anticoagulatory chemical in their saliva that prevents their bloody meals from clotting. This compound could be studied for stroke treatment. Also, people have proposed using the principal of echolocation to design canes that bounce sound to help users get around safely. And there is still so much we don’t know about bats, and so much bats can teach us. It’s a fact that compared to other mammals of similar size, bats are incredibly long lived. I wonder if bat telomeres, the protective tips on chromosomes, are particularly stable compared to the telomeres in other species. That would be worth investigating; we might gain new insights into aging and longevity from bats. The possibilities are endless, provided we do our part to keep bats around as long as possible.