Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Thing about Bats

Batty Koda from Ferngully.

     I suppose if I hurry this weekend with a short entry I can get a one in for July. This will at least mean I have done one post a month in the last two months.  We have finished moving and finally settled in enough to have the internet and a path to the computer.  This is one topic that deserves way more time and intellect than I have for it, but hopefully you will come away with a better understanding of bats and the peril they face in the US today.

     Bats today play a much more important role than just helping with the open scenes of Scooby Doo.  Though greatly misunderstood and demonized they actually work hard as pollinators for a great many number of plants.  Some species are only pollinated by bats, I do not recall which ones but I remember hearing it from Sir David Attenborough, so I stake it a reliable source.

    There are over 1200 species in the order Chiroptera ("hand wing"-luckily these things sound better in Greek). As a matter of mathematics that represents about 1/5th of the world's classified mammals. They range in size from the one inch (2.5 cm) Kitti's Hog-nosed bat to the 13 inch (32.5 cm) or so Giant Golden-crowned Flying fox.  Their wingspans range from nearly 6 inches (15 cm) to almost 5 feet. (1.5 meters).  All the other fellows fall into line somewhere in between.

Kitti's hog-nosed bat. Couresy of  great site or wildlife images

Giant Golden-crowned Flying-fox.  Luckily he is only a frugivore.

Bit o' scale for the flying fox.  

    Nearly 70% of bats are insectivores. Zipping along erratically using their echolocation to follow some bug or another.  Most of the remaining 30% are frugivores, dining on fruits which very seldom have erratic flight-paths.  Still the remaining like the fish eating bat, eat, well, fish.  Again, the people in charge of bat naming are a creative lot.  These bats also eat crustaceans such as the "squat lobster" (not making that up), so let us be glad that they are not called the fish and crustacean eating bat.  The remaining bat is classified as the only mammalian parasite.-the Vampire bat.

     Vilified by Bram Stroker, this small bad makes its living feeding on the blood of larger animals, usually cows and other livestock.  The bat will slice a small slit in the animals skin and lick the trickling blood.  The whole process is aided by a type of coagulant that is part of the the chemical composition of the vampire bat's saliva. Luckily however with this new version of sparkling vampires, maybe the small vampire bat can go back to its life of obscurity.

     The most important thing that bats are facing these days are a lot more serious than bad literature.  In America there has been a recent outbreak of a fungus.  "White-nose syndrome" as it is known, gets its name from the white fungus growing around the nose and ears of infected bats.  The mortality rate has hit 90-100% in certain caves in the American Northeast.  The disease is troubling the endangered Indiana bat but studies and preliminary accounts believe that it might even drive some of the most numerous bat species in America to extinction.
Small bats infected with White-nose syndrome. Source

      To save time and space, as I am told repeatedly that aides the popularity of a blog I will include the link to a Smithsonian magazine article on the disease.  What's killing the bats?  is out in the August 2011 issue of the magazine and follows the work of scientist trying to outpace, outwit, and overtake the fungus.  The interesting thing that you should get from the article if you don't read it or the link dies in the future is that according to genetic studies, something similar happened in Europe many, many years before.  Think of it as a Black Death of bats.  Thousands perished but the ones that survived have an immunity to the new fungus.
February 2006 at Howes Cave, west of Albany, New York. Source:
Her entry in Jan. 2011 indicate that "they" whoever "they" are believe the fungus is just a symptom
 but not the cause of the deaths. There was one comment on here entry: 

“Researchers increasingly suspect the fungus is not the primary cause of the die-offs, but a symptom of a larger, unidentified problem.”
Upon what do you base this statement? As someone involved since the beginning in this investigation, exactly the opposite is true: that despite Koch’s Postulates not being proven yet, the fungus is clearly believed to be the cause. The most recently published research documents the wing damage to bats by the tissue-eating fungus, which the scientists believe affects the bats’ ability to fly, forage, nurse, and cool their bodies; the latter temperature regulation being a key to fending off the fungus.

     The fungus still exists in Europe but the extant bats are not as bothered as the ones in the States.  So maybe some future cross Atlantic breeding will help the immune systems of an iconic flying mammal.  Another interesting theory is that the fungus was brought stateside by spelunking tourists.  Cavers who explored American caves with tainted european equipment. I am sure it was not done on purpose but the bats are dead just the same.  The bats are seen flying out in full daylight, and during winter when they should be hibernating.  This is a full blown outbreak, but luckily very well trained scientist have been battling it from its onset.  To paraphrase the researcher in the Smithsonian interview: hopefully they will be able to actively fight off the disease and not just be documenting an extinction.  Good luck to all those involved, and good luck to the bats.
'09 Map of confirmed and likely breakouts of the fungus. Source:

    In conclusion, ladies and jellyspoons, the bat may be going extinct under our very eyes. Many don't know, and I am sure many more do not care. The few that are fighting the whole outbreak are repeatedly coming up against brick walls.  But, think for a moment, whether you like bats or hate them, what the world would be like if there were none, or even decidedly fewer.  Ecosystems depend on them, they are a keystone species in some areas, and important culturally around the world.

    We should at least care. If you cannot find any other reason than to feel compassion for these creatures, I can only offer you two things.  They were the inspiration for one of the most popular crime fighters in all of comicdom, and they give us the perfect way to explain how someone has lost all their faculties and might possibly be on the verge of some kind of mental, critical and existential breakdown. I mean imagine a world without Batman.  Also imagine what you could call someone besides "batshit crazy"  in order to get your point across immediately.

Bartok the Magnificent from Anastasia


  1. That flying-fox monstrosity is the scariest thing I have ever seen...

  2. Bats are WONDERFUL ... I wish I could give that huge golden crowned flying fox a banana and just sit and watch it...

    Flying foxes especially are amazing and adorable.
    Bats are so beneficial, too.
    It's marvelous to see such variety among them. =-)