By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – No soundtrack to Halloween would be complete without the flapping wings and piercing squeaks of bats. They are the maligned creatures of the night this time of year and also part of the holiday decorating tsunami – as in uber-icky spongey blobs hanging off fishing line on front porches.
Even without Halloween, bats give a lot of people the creeps. It’s a bad rap. For every movie poster of a bat flying straight out, teeth bared, there is a video (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uuvaos1WHTk and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T84jdO8YrYA) that reminds us they are living beings requiring care.
October is Bat Appreciation Month, and in honor of the amazing order of Chiroptera, as well as those who care for them, one Washington State University Libraries patron took a tour of the collections and librarian recommendations to learn more about these animals.
Serving an important purpose
Bats come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Long or short ears. Large or small eyes. They are one of the most diverse and widespread mammal species on the planet. Nearly 1,000 species of bats exist, and only three feed solely on blood.
“Bats have an important role to play in the natural world around us,” wrote Phil Richardson in his book “Bats.” “The fruit eating species are major seed dispersers, while the nectar feeders are pollinators of trees and plants in tropical areas and have been found to be of importance in regenerating areas of cleared tropical forest.
“Insect eaters maintain the famous ‘balance of nature,’ preying on huge numbers of flying insects every night, some of which can become serious pests of our crops, farm animals, buildings and ourselves,” Richardson said.
Bats have also been around a long time; the earliest fossil of an insect-eating bat is 50 million years old and very similar to the bats alive today.
Marvels of navigation
Watching bats fly at night is deceiving. They look clumsy in the air, zigzagging in seemingly random ways that are not random at all. Equipped with flexible wings that are really their hands and the ability to “see” their environment and dinner through sound – called echolocation – they know exactly where they’re going.
The BBC Learning DVD “Airborne: Life Takes to the Sky” describes the evolution of echolocation as starting with bats making simple clicking sounds and listening to the echoes of their own calls to create a mental image of their surroundings. Over time, bats developed a more complex range of sounds that allowed them to pick up more details and fine-tune their navigation and hunting.
A documentary from Nature, “Secrets and Mysteries of Bats,” tells how Harvard scientist Donald Griffin made the first major breakthrough in defining bats’ use of high-frequency sounds to see, and coined the term “echolocation,” during the 1940s.
“Our best sonars can’t achieve anything like the rapidity of analysis of which a bat’s brain is capable,” according to the film.
Considering the repugnance toward bats as harbingers of evil and carriers of rabies, few people likely know that the animals were actually sought after by the U.S. military during World War II for a mission called Operation X-Ray. In 1942, a dental surgeon named Lytle S. Adams wrote to the White House “suggesting bat bombs could bring victory over Japan,” as told in “Secrets and Mysteries of Bats.” President Roosevelt approved the mission on the advice of Griffin.
Bats can carry more than their body weight, so scientists planned to fit tiny incendiary bombs on thousands of sleeping bats and release them over Japan. The bats would wake and roost under the eaves of Japanese buildings, then the bombs would be triggered to go off, burning down the structures.
“But in tests, the bats didn’t respond as intended,” the film describes. “Some hit the ground still sleeping, others flew away. But the real problem recruits were those that returned their bombs to explode back at base,” including the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base near Carlsbad, N.M., on May 15, 1943.
After spending an estimated $2 million and sacrificing thousands of bats, Operation X-Ray was canceled.
‘The Queen Who Flew’
Aside from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” bats have figured in other forms of literature. A wise if somewhat irritable bat is a central character in a fairy tale out of London. Originally published in 1894 and written by Ford Madox Ford, “The Queen Who Flew” is the story of a young queen who learns to fly with the help of a bat.
Queen Eldrida has lived a sheltered life in her castle and frequently talks to the bat in her garden for companionship. When she learns he can fly, she asks him to tell her the secret to flight so that she can go out and explore the world as he does. After some coaxing, he tells her she must wear a certain type of flower in the garden, and Eldrida flies off for the start of grand adventures.
In the end, Eldrida no longer wants to rule, having found that working on the land with a blind farmer and his mother is what she really desires. So she names the bat king.
As she puts it, “he will be very economical, because he neither needs much food, nor cares for rich robes. Therefore, the taxes will not be heavy; and, even if he is a little weak-eyed, he will not be a bit more blind to your interests, perhaps, than you are yourselves.”
Building them a home
Organizations have sprung up all over the globe to protect and provide housing for bats, which are threatened on many fronts – from dwindling habitats, overhunting and wind turbines to white-nose syndrome and outright killing by those who fear them.
One such organization is Bat Conservation International, which this week is attempting to set the world record for largest urban bat colony in the world at the Austin Bat House Building Event in Texas. Bat house building events all around North America are being held on Oct. 31 in another world record attempt to build the largest number of bat houses in one day.
To learn more about building bat houses in your area, visit http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses.
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744, firstname.lastname@example.org