Thursday, October 9, 2003

6. Bats get a bum holiday rap

Halloween brings out all the scary creatures- ghosts and goblins, vampires, and mummies. Witches and the Grim Reaper, too. Don't forget Frankenstein, the devil and flying bats. Wait, bats? How ever did they get grouped in with this deplorable cast? Who is responsible for this inexcusable sort of prejudicial slander? Where is a good lawyer when you need one?

If you really look at them- bats are cute, at least in a flying-Gremlin sort of way. One just has to look past its rat-like body, big ears, piggish nose and beady eyes. Looks can be deceiving; it's what is underneath that counts; beauty is only skin deep- did I miss any?

Actually these little guys do lots of good. They save farmers money on pesticides by eating millions of pounds of insects each night. They pollinate key tree and plant species in the rain forest. They even produce (through there droppings known as Guano) an important component in gunpowder. That's right! In fact, in the War of 1812 and as late as the American Civil War, bat caves were so important that guards were stationed outside to protect them from their enemies. Finally, to aid in the World War II effort, Brazilian free-tail bats offered to have small bombs attached to their backs. Their Kamikaze-type plan was to be dropped by planes over Japan, land on buildings, and then detonate the bombs when they groomed themselves. Appreciating the patriotism offered by the bats, the plan was abandoned. Who are the "real" heroes anyway?

For their effort, how are they treated? In typical American fashion, a lack of appreciation and ignorance prevails. We destroy their habitats. But then again, bats shouldn't be offended- we indiscriminately destroy lots of habitats. We tell lies. Bats have rabies; they are evil and dangerous. They suck blood. They have become the victims of negative human attitudes. All the while the truth would tell us that they contract rabies at comparable mammalian levels (about .5%) and no North American bats include blood in their diets. Bats have been around for at least three million years, with over 1,000 species (or about 25% of all mammal species). But, alas, one-half of these are listed as endangered or as a candidate for endangerment, as many fail to realize that they are a peaceful and beneficial part of our ecosystem.

In the study of their nature, we find that bats really are amazing creatures. Famous for their echolocational abilities, they catch their prey by emitting a high frequency sound and with the returning waves paint themselves a mental picture of the prey's location. In mastering this technique, they are able to detect a single strand of hair in complete darkness. Bats are also the only mammalian species with the ability to fly. They have hands like humans, four fingers and a thumb, which have become elongated to form the wing (they also have five little toes). There are two general types, microbats- as small as a bumblebee and megabats- as large as two pounds. Microbats live off of insects, while megabats eat fruit and nectar. Finally, and in true Halloween spirit, northern bats hibernate in the winter- in colonies known as Hibernaculas!

There are three species that are classified as vampire bats, deriving their name from the European legends that preceded their discovery. They use their three front fangs to puncture the skin of a sleeping cow or horse and lap up the blood. They do not suck. Their saliva has a special chemical that prevents the blood from coagulating. Scientists believe that this chemical, as a blood thinner, could help humans. And now, suddenly, these bats, at least, aren't so bad.

So have your fun this Halloween, hang those scary plastic creatures in your house and off your porch. Shriek at the thought of being attacked by these bloodthirsty animals or getting them caught in your hair. Maybe even take in an old-time vampire movie. But next Spring, attempt to make amends with our cute furry insecticides. Invite them into our gardens and fields. Beg forgiveness for that whole World War II Kamikaze thing. Do the right thing- put up a bat house and welcome them in!

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