Few creatures have attained the ability to evoke utter terror like the bat. What is it about this flying mammal that has resulted in such a stigma of filth, disease, and horror? Paisley Rekdal’s poem, “Bat,” begins by depicting a bat at rest, but by the final lines, the nightmarish language has drawn the reader into a paranoid fantasy. The title acts as the first line in this work, which begins:
unveil themselves in dark.
They hang, each a jagged,
silken sleeve, from moonlit rafters bright
as polished knives. They swim
the muddled air and keen
like supersonic babies, the sound
we imagine empty wombs might make
in women who can’t fill them up.”
So in the opening stanzas alone, bats have evoked moonlight, knives, “supersonic babies,” and infertile women. This rich, dark symbolism had to have begun somewhere, but where? Why is the bat often feared and hated by humans?
Bats are the only mammals capable of true, sustained flight. Their wings are unlike birds’ wings; in fact, the bones in a bat wing are homologous to those in a human hand, which means they are alike in structure because they descended from a common ancestor. Between the “hand” and body of the bat, and between each finger bone, is a thin membrane of skin called the patagium. The “thumb” of the bat projects from the top of the wing in a claw, allowing bats to climb. As a result of these features, bats belong to the order Chiroptera, which in Greek means “hand-wing.”
Most bat species are only active at night, and spend daylight hours hidden away in caves, under bridges, in chimneys, or in trees. Because of their nocturnal habit, most bats have evolved a system called echolocation, which uses soundwaves to navigate and find prey. In brief, the bat produces ultrasonic sounds and listens for the echos bouncing off of objects in its path. By interpreting the speed and intensity at which the echos return, the bat creates a detailed image of its surroundings. With echolocation, bats can judge the size, distance, and direction of movement of small objects like insects. Some bats make these sounds with their mouths, while others use their noses. It is thought that the strange nose structure (called a leaf) in some tropical bats serves to help focus the sound for accuracy purposes.
“A clasp, a scratch, a sigh.
They drink fruit dry.
And wheel, against feverish light flung hard
upon their faces,
in circles that nauseate.”
“Chiroptera,” from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, 1904.
It seems likely that the mistrust and fear of bats stems initially from their appearance and behavior. They only come out at night, can fly, emit strange noises, and some even drink blood! European cultures have long associated bats with witchcraft, black magic, darkness and evil, and this animal has suffered negative connotations in works from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In Mesoamerica, bats symbolized the land of the dead, destruction, and decay. A fear of bats even has a title: chiroptophobia.
The myth of the vampire is based in fact. There are, however, only three species of vampire bat in the world, and those live in Mexico, South and Central America. In addition, two out of these three species only drink the blood of birds (the third drinks mammalian blood, but prefers cattle to humans). Unlike the movies, they do not suck their victim’s blood: rather, they prick the animal and lap up the blood. The bats’ saliva contains an anticoagulant that prevents the blood from clotting. This enzyme is useful to humans, as well: it is used to treat human stroke victims.
Another major fear inspired by bats is of rabies. While it is true, that some bats carry rabies, only a very small percentage do, and it is impossible to contract rabies by merely seeing a bat or being in the same room as one. That being said, if you are bitten by a bat (or by any other wild mammal, ever) tell your doctor. If the animal can be captured and tested for rabies, it will provide peace of mind.
Fear of rabies has caused a lot of unnecessary destruction of bats and bat colonies. This does not only disrupt the ecosystem, but affects us as well, since the presence of bats is quite beneficial to humans. Most species are insectivorous (eat insects), and consume some very damaging pest species. Many others act as pollinators for both wild and cultivated plants, including bananas, peaches, durian, cloves, and carob. Fruit-eating bats play a role as seed dispersers, and in some clear-cut forests, up to 95% of first new growth can be attributed to bats. Bats have also been shown to disperse the seeds of avocados, dates, figs, and cashews.
So bats may look scary, and they may act strange or unnatural, but in truth they are generally harmless, beneficial animals; animals that continue to be incredibly misunderstood. As with many other wild animals, bats are more afraid of you than you are of them. The next time you’re out at night, try to remember this when, without a sound, those silent wings swoop downward toward you before you can react. Enjoy your fear, but don’t allow it to guide your actions in the waking world.
“Imagine one at breast or neck,
Patterning a name in driblets of iodine
that spatter your skin stars.
They flutter, shake like mystics.
They materialize. Revelatory
as a stranger’s underthings found tossed
upon the marital bed, you tremble
even at the thought. Asleep,
you tear your fingers
and search the sheets all night.”
Harris, Tom. 2001. “How Bats Work.” Howstuffworks.com. Link.
“Learning about bats and rabies.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.
“Myths and Facts.” Bat World Sanctuary. Link.
Rekdal, Paisley. “Bats.” Read it here.
Tuttle, Merlin D. 2011. “All About Bats.” Bat Conservation International. Link.
My personal bat guru, Laura Cisneros, provided fact-checking and proofreading of this post. Any mistakes or inaccuracies are my own. Laura is a PhD student researching the effects of human-modified landscapes on different aspects of bat communities. Results of her research identify characteristics of these landscapes that maintain a diversity of bat species and increase the probability of maintaining vital ecosystem services (e.g. pollination) provided by bats. As she writes,
“Have you ever looked out of an airplane window and noticed the intricate patchwork of forest, cropland, pasture, and urban areas below? These human-modified landscapes occupy over 75% of the Earth’s land surface. In other words, habitats available to most species are embedded within a mosaic of land that has been converted for human use. When we alter ecosystems by reducing them in size and fragmenting them, we lose species that play important roles that maintain a working ecosystem. One such group of species is bats. In the tropics, bats are very abundant and have a diverse diet, including fruits, nectar, pollen, insects, frogs, fish, and blood. As a consequence, bats play an important role in seed dispersal and pollination as well as in regulating animal populations (some of which are pest species to agriculture).”
For more information, please check out her webpage, located here.