B A T S
A Personal Essay on the Order Chiroptera
with Parenthetical Tangents

by Mordantia Bat


If you were searching for more practical bat advice rather
than a personal essay, see these recommended links
.


NOTE: The article below was originally written in 1999.
Pertinent updates are noted within the text of the article when warranted.


umans tend to anthropomorphize their relationships with the other species of this planet. Any and all adjectives are attributed to our fellow species -- what animals do you conjure up when hearing such adjectives as fluffy, cute, edible, spooky, dangerous, gross, loyal, or noble? I would bet, given the audience of this 'zine, many of you adamantly thought, "Snakes. Snakes are fluffy." Yes, a minor challenge to the usual entrenched generalizations, that, and one I believe even speaks of a kind of reverence for the animals themselves. Idiosyncratic adjectives always bring a giddy smile to my face. Nevertheless, I am sure you must know what I am talking about when I speak instead of the typical descriptions people are wont to use.

And bats -- well, poor bats -- in Western culture, they've often suffered the fate of being dropped usually into those spooky, scary, or dangerous categories. Terrifying or sometimes cutesy sanitized images of them are trotted out at Hallowe'en and in horror movies. Communities frequently worry about them as a health or safety concern, sometimes citing (erroneously, by the way) that most bats are rabid.

Although I may be in danger myself of anthropomorphizing with this observation, I'd hazard to guess the other animals are pretty much oblivious as to how we label them. Unfortunately, though, they are not immune to the consequences our labels sometimes cause for them. And for bats, being thought of as scary or dangerous has had predictable and unnecessary results, such as widespread extermination and habitat destruction.

I, personally, enjoy spooky things, but I know too well that spooky things are often misunderstood, exploited, and/or persecuted. While the merits of dismissing (or persecuting) certain human creations because they are deemed spooky or dark is at best highly debatable (and you can guess on which side of such a debate I'm on), labeling a fellow species and then subjecting it to the cruelties invoked by said labels is absolutely ludicrous.

SO? WHY ARE BATS CONSIDERED SPOOKY?

Good question. Who decided on that? Considering that bats account for a fourth of mammals on earth, did they not get a vote?

Much folklore around the world has cast the bat in a bad role. Perhaps the most familiar of this folklore to we in Western culture are the medieval witchcraft texts that described bats as familiars for witches and the old European lore which associated bats with vampires. Curiously, the old European association of bats to vampires occurred long before Europeans discovered the existence of the less common species of vampire bats in South America (the only continent where vampire bats are found). Also, note that the bat's "evil" reputation from those medieval texts clung to it far into the modern day, while cats, who got the same bad reputation in those texts, have since been redeemed and thrown in the "cute" category (going by popular generalizations, that is.) So, how did bats come to be seen as so "evil?" The prevailing theory seems to be that since bats are mostly nocturnal animals and would stay away from people, people simply were not familiar with these creatures, and often what is unfamiliar is misunderstood.

 

Typical medieval propaganda. Loudun, 1634.


Bats are not always portrayed as evil in world mythologies. In Chinese folklore, for example, bats are a symbol of good fortune and luck. Folklore from Samoa, ancient Greece, the Kono peoples of Sierra Leone, and the Apache and Cherokee tribes all portray bats in a more favorable light. See some folklore examples from the web site: Bats: A Thematic Resource for Teachers and Students, a site that contains some interesting educational information about bats.

The Dictionary of Symbolism, found on the University of Michigan's Fantasy and Science Fiction pages, contains an interesting view on the mythology of bats. Here, one of the symbols they attribute to the bat is unusual: "It has qualities of both the bird and the mouse, rendering this animal a symbol of ANDROGYNE...." Androgyne, in turn, is defined as "the mystery of creation, the origin of life in the universe which began the cosmologic cycle. If Adam was created in God's image, thus inherently bisexual, the introduction of the female symbolizes the beginning of the fall from a state of perfection into duality. According to Plato, marriage is an attempt to restore the androgynous unity that was eternally lost with Adam and the creation of Eve. Androgyny is also the beginning and the end, as is Alpha and Omega; it is by nature both dualism and wholeness, the reunion of the original male-female essences."

 

BAT FACTS AND SOME ECOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Folklore aside, there have been more rational people who, although dismissive of the supernatural myths, still found something wrong with bats. Bats were often seen as dirty, disease-ridden, or vicious. Some "species-centric" humans, especially those in the relatively recent past whose attitude towards Nature was one more of conquest and control, have likewise thought bats were expendable, simply pests in their way. Well, even the most "species-centric" humans are discovering that it isn't always advisable to control Nature or wantonly destroy it. People are finally getting this concept, some out of an empathetic or altruistic love for animals/nature and some because a destroyed planet just isn't going to make a good place to install the new swimming pool. Even for the most species- and egocentric amongst us, ecology has become something important to consider. And guess what? It turns out that bats happen to be extremely important to the ecology and very survival of this planet.

 

SOME NOTEWORTHY FACTOIDS:

• Bats make up one fourth of the mammals on this planet.

• There are over 1000 species of bats. They come in all sorts of different sizes, shapes, colors, and habits. There are species of bats with six-foot wings spans and species of bats less than an inch in size.

• Bats are the only mammal that can truly fly. Their wings are elongated bones (essentially, their arm and hand bones), covered by a translucent but strong leather-like skin. Chiroptera, the scientific name for the Order of bats, incidentally, means "hand-wing."

• Different species of bats eat different things: insects, fruit, pollen, and small animals are among some of the dietary preferences of some of the species. About 70% of bats feed on insects; 20% on fruit and nectar from blooming plants. Others feed on fish and sometimes small animals. There are only three species of so-named vampire bats that feed on the blood of other animals (usually cattle). They do not suck the blood; they lap it after making a small incision. These bats, probably more than any others, are the ones that have sometimes enthralled and unnecessarily frightened the morbid imaginations of humans for eons, who in turn cast aspersions on the whole of bats.

 

THE ROLE OF BATS IN THE ENVIRONMENT

Ecologically-speaking, bats are vital because many of the bat species are the primary pollinators of certain plants, especially those that bloom nocturnally. While bees and birds help along pollination and the spreading of seeds during the day, the bats take over this role at night. Many species of plants would disappear without the bats' help -- with obvious disastrous results for the environment.

In addition to this important contribution to pollination and plant seed dispersal, many species of bats help to keep the insect population in check. A common brown bat, for example, can eat as many as 600 mosquitoes in a hour.

Years ago, I remember reading in a trivia column that bats were the primary pollinator of the cacao plant. I've always been puzzled that I've never seen this tidbit cited anywhere else since, and this surprised me as the implication of it is enormous! If true, doesn't this mean bats are essential to the existence of chocolate? Without bats, chocolate would not exist? If this information is true, publicizing it certainly would have the the chocolate-lovers of the world embracing bats and rushing to their aid and their conservation. Surely!

And think of the advertising possibilities! (er ...) Imagine a world where bats had not been so defamed and were welcome fodder for marketing firms. Candy bar wrappers would be inundated with cartoons of bats, with their little cute furry faces baring their sharp little teeth into caricatures of happy grins. Hmm. No, stop imagining that. I just had an attack of the vapors as I imagined a companion to something like Hello Kitty -- Bonjour Batty. Vapors, I have the vapors . . . .

But seriously, I would willingly repress my instinct to cringe at such "cute-ifying" of bats were that to help stop their destruction. Cute's just a label, after all, and ultimately meaningless -- at least, if I subscribe to my own assertions mentioned about labels above.

PARENTHETICAL TANGENT

Possibly, given the audience for this 'zine, I am preaching to the converted -- you all know these basic bat facts and know why they're fascinating and beneficial. I highly doubt that most of you who like to read "Suffering is Hip" have any superstitious qualms about bats. Au contraire. I suspect most of you have a similar fondness to mine.

As this piece is meant to be more of a personal essay about the value of bats rather than an exhaustive reference, I will not go further into bat facts and biology. If hard facts interest you, however, there is a lot of information out there on bats these days. For further and more detailed information on the web, I trust you have a favorite search engine? Links to bat sites can be found on Bat Conservation International's site, too, if you want a general list of where to start looking.

from the Spring 1999 issue of BATS

 

BAT CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL & BAT POSTAL STAMPS

Efforts to stop the misguided destruction of bat species are making notable progress these days, both in saving the bats and convincing people bats are not scary. (Now, convincing people that "scary" isn't always scary is another matter . . . )

One of the best known organizations involved in these efforts, Bat Conservation International, is devoted to conservation, education, and research. Take a look at their site for information on conservation and many links to other facts about bats.

Another site you might want to check out is a web page put together by Laszlo (he with whom I live), in which he talks about a recent article that appeared in Bats (a Bat Conservation International publication for members). The article pointed out that there has never been a US Postage stamp featuring bats, although many other species (and topics) have been so lauded. See Laszlo's bat stamp page for an informative and entertaining rant in support of the article. Find out there (or in the spring issue of Bats) how to pester the US Postal Office to give us a bat on a stamp.


UPDATE: September 2002

The US Postal Office has now released an edition of stamps featuring bats! As they are a commemorative issue of stamps, they're likely to not last long.

You can currently find out more about this edition online on the US Post Office's online store site.

 

CONCLUSION (A FINAL
PARENTHETICAL TANGENT)

As I conclude my little essay, I think I must at least offer a comment on my name. Surely, you noticed the author of this essay is named Bat, and perhaps this essay is just a twisted sort of inter-species nepotism. (Huh?) So, in brief, how I came to be called Bat: I admit that yes, I originally got into bats partially because I found their paradoxical reputation appealing (and partially because I am inclined towards animals, in general). I named myself "Bat" back in the late 80s because I needed a less than 8-character handle for some ancient chat board I had logged onto. I looked around, looked down, and saw the Edward Gorey-style bat tattoo under my clavicle, which I'd had tattooed on myself a couple of years before that. "Bat" I thought, and "Bat" I became. As the name fit me somehow, it continues to stick with me still today. Why does it stick with me? I dunno. Maybe I'm misunderstood, maybe I feed metaphorically on insects, maybe I'm "spooky," maybe I just wish I had a six foot wing span. Nah. It's not really any of those things. It's just simple:

A bat is a bat is a bat.

Fascinating, misunderstood, and vital.

But those are labels, adjectives even, and I wasn't going to resort to those. Oh, well, it's merely proof I'm wretchedly human.

 

 

a tattoo


NOTE: To learn more about the author, Mordantia Bat,
please check her Bio on the Editors Page.




© Mordantia Bat
Late Spring 1999