Bats and Humanity

Bats, at least the ones that occur in North-western Europe, look a bit like mice with wings, and the old English name for a bat was flittermouse or fluttermouse, meaning flying mouse. This word derives from the German word for a bat which is Fledermaus, hence Johan Straus's famous opera 'Die Fledermaus' is really about bats, or at least it should have one in it somewhere, but I can't find it.

The English word 'bat', as a name for a small flying mammal, comes from the Old English word bakke, meaning "to flutter", while the English word 'batty' means crazy in a relatively harmless sort of way. In England they also say that someone who is a little mad 'has bats in the belfry'. On the other side of the world and a long time ago the Aztec word for a bat was apparently 'quimichpapalotl' which means butterfly mouse.


Furthermore, in Greece, in the middle-ages, there was a myth that bats arose from a mouse. The myth states that a mouse came into a church and stole one of the wafers of the eucharist, and then decided to keep it rather than to eat it. Because of the mouse's pious respect for the holy wafer God gave it wings so it would be able to find plenty of food in the future, and so it became a bat. In Mexico peasant farmers used to refer to bats as 'ratones viejos' meaning 'old mice', they believed mice grew wings as they got older and turned into bats.

Airy mouse, airy mouse, fly over my head
and you shall have a crust of bread,
and when I brew and when I bake,
you shall have a piece of my wedding cake.

The above is an anonymous rhyme recited by children in England prior to the 20th century to avert bad luck on seeing a bat.

In Western Europe there was an unfounded myth that if a bat should fall on a woman, who all had long hair in those days, the bat would become so entangled in her hair that the hair would have to be cut to get it out. In 1959 this myth was still so believed that the Earl of Cranbrook took it upon himself to test the myths veracity. Using four species of bats, and three brave female volunteers he deliberately attempted to entangle the bats by thrusting them into the woman's hair. On all occasions the bats were able to escape without becoming entangled. So now you know the truth.

Our habit of sharing their ancestral living quarters would inevitably have brought bats to our attention from before the dawn of history. How these early humans viewed their small flying cohabiters we may never know, but it should come as no surprise that bats figure in most ancient mythologies.

In both ancient Chinese and Persian mythologies bats symbolized longevity and happiness, however in post Christian Europe the bats habit of flying at night lead to it becoming associated with the devil. Many paintings from western Europe in the middle ages depict the devil with bats wings. Later bats received in worse publicity when they became associated with Count Dracula and vampires. These deeply emotive images have probably contributed to the sinister image that bats still possess in many people's minds, even though we now know they are beneficial members of the environment. In Europe a bat entering a house was a forewarning of a death in the house, whereas in China it was a sign of good fortune. Strangely perhaps, given its poor press in Europe, carrying the dried and powdered heart of a bat in your front pocket was supposed to protect you from bleeding to death, and later to stop bullets.

Other strange beliefs in Europe include the idea that carrying a bats eye around with you will allow you to turn invisible, that nailing a dead bat to your door will protect you from demons, that putting a drop of bats blood under a woman's pillow will help her be fruitful and that burning incense over the site of a bat buried at a crossroads would help you acquire a powerful love potion.

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, written 800 years ago, the witches brew a potion with:-

"Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog."

Many of the myths about bats relate to their way of life, they fly at night and so do witches, hence in Western Europe witches and bats must associate together. They also like caves so in California, North America the Pomo Indians had a myth that that suggests bats could eat volcanic rock and then spew out ready made arrow-heads. Other mythological bats from the Americas include the Maya believing that the 'House of the Bat' was one of the areas that the soul had to pass through on its way to the land of Death. The Thuni Indians believing that a bat foretold rain and the Tupinamba people have/had a belief that at the end of time the world will be swallowed by a bat.

In Africa bats were credited with a high intelligence, an idea that reflected their ability to fly around so quickly in the dark without hitting anything. In shamanism therefore the bat, as well as being a symbol of death and rebirth is able to guide people through the dark times of their life.

Like all bats the large fruit eating bats of the family Pteropidae must have been known to humanity since the dawn of time. However modern science and hence western Europe really only learned about them as we travelled out to the tropical world. The genus Pteropus was first described by Brisson in 1762 from specimens collected on the Reunion Islands.

Aboriginal peoples however were describing them long before this. In the sandstone caves of Northern Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, there are numerous depictions of flying foxes, some dating back tens of thousands of years. Amongst the rambling stories that make up the tales of the Australian Aboriginal Dream-time there is one of a confrontation between Tjinimin the Bat God and the Great Rainbow-Snake. Tjinimin wanted to have sex with the Green Parrot-Girls that were the consorts of Great Rainbow-Snake and of course Great Rainbow-Snake objected to this. At the end of the story Tjinimin hangs upside-down in a tree to admire the stars and decides never to try having sex with anyone again, whereupon his nose falls off. Which is why bats have such short faces, apparantly.

Archeological evidence suggests that before the coming of Europeans Flying Foxes were not often used as food by the Australian Aboriginees, however more recently the habit has become much more common. This undoubtedly reflects the loss of other preferred game animals from the habitat.

Flying foxes eat fruit and this has inevitably brought them into conflict with humans who grow fruit, especialy when the bats preferred natural resources have been logged out of existance and replanted as monoculture. Flying Foxes, along with all other native bats are now protected in Australia however the path to protection has been a rocky one for the Flying Foxes. Prior to 1985 Flying Foxes were not protected in New South Wales, in fact they were reguarded as vermin. Between 1985 and 1994 they were removed from the protected fauna list in Queensland. Hundreds of thousands of bats were needlessly exterminated during the last two decades of the 20th century. It is etimated that the curent population of most Australian species of Pteropidae is less than 20% of what it was 100 years ago.

In other parts of the world fruit bats were occasionally hunted in small numbers, but now increased access to habitats supplied by roads created by logging companies and modern equipment such as shot guns and fishing nets has resulted in far larger numbers being killed. The complete extinction of Pteropus tokudae and the extinction of Pteropus mariannus on most inhabited islands is a direct result of hunting and habitat destruction. Besides the above, hunting of fruit bats in the Indo-Pacific area is also supported by a market in Guam, artificially maintained by the higher per capita income on Guam than on the source islands. Between 1981 and 1989 aproximately 13,000 fruit bat bodies were imported into Guam for human consumption every year.

Fruitbats are not the only bats to be eaten in the Indo-Pacific region. The Microchiropteran Cheiromeles torquatus is eaten in Borneo and Tadarida sp. are eaten in Laos, both to such an extent that the hunting of them has become a major concern to environmentalists.

In South America the Vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, is persecuted because it transmits Rabies virus to the livestock it feeds off. This persecution has been quite intense, and has had negative effects on the whole environment. For instance 40,000 caves have been dynamited in Venezuela. Obviously D. rotundus was not the only animal, or even the only bat, to use these now destroyed habitats.

In many countires such as Europe and the USA the microchiroptera, being at the end of the entomological food chain, suffered horribly as a result of mankinds chemical war with the insects. Many populations crashed during the 1960s when use of DDT and other poisons became common. In some cases they have shown some small increase since the worst times. Scientific research has shown that bats are more sensitive to DDT than either birds, or other mammals.

The Mexican Free-tailed Bat, Tadarida brasiliensis, supplies a prime example a a species we have good information on. In 1937 the estimated mid-summer population of these bats in Carlsbad Carvern in New Mexico was 8.7 million, but by 1979 the estimated population was down to 218 thousand, or a mere 2.5 percent of what it was. Also, in a study of the bats of Eagle Creek Cave in Arizona during the 1960s, the mid-summer population was seen to crash from 25 million to only 30 thousand which is only 0.12 percent of the original.

The use of chlorinated hydrocarbons to protect wood from bats in both Europe and the USA has also had a detrimental effect on bat populations. In the USA these pesticides were also used to specifically expel bats from roosts in houses. According to the Encyclopedia of Mammals as edited by David Macdonald "In the United States fear of bats has been deliberately generated by the multi-million dollar pest control industry to attract business for the destruction of bats in buildings." As with all ecological problems the two spines of the devils fork, ignorance and greed are largely to blame.

In more recent times, thanks to a lot of good work by a variety of conservationists and environmentalists, the use of such poisons has greatly declined with synthetic pyrethroids and other similar chemicals taking their place. These chemicals are far less toxic to mammals.

Poisons and persecution are of course not the only problem. Habitat destruction, especially the felling of mixed species woodlands also has a highly negative effect on bat populations, as it does on many other animals. Further problems are caused by introduced species. In New Zealand the decline and eventual extinction of Mystacina robusta followed the spread of the introduced Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans) and then the equally introduced Black Rat (Rattus rattus). Other examples of damage done by introduced species include regular numbers of bats in the genus Chalinolobus being killed by cats in New Zealand and Australia and juvenile Pteropus mariannus being eaten by the introduced tree-snake Boiga irregularis on Guam.

In all European countries bats are now protected by law. In England they are well protected by the law. For instance, among other things it is illegal to: Intentionally kill, injure or capture a bat; Possess or control a live or dead bat, any part of a bat, or anything derived from a bat; Intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or obstruct access to any place that a bat uses for shelter or protection. The laws in Wales and Scotland are pretty much the same. The penalty for breaking these laws is £5,000 per bat. You even need a license to photograph bats in the UK. See UK Bat Law.  Unfortunately bats in other parts of the world are not so well protected although two entire genera, Pteropus and Acerodon are listed on Apendices 1 and 2 of CITES.

Nevertheless at least 12 species of bats have gone extinct in recent times.

Scientific NameCommon NameDate of Extinction Authority1Location
Acerodon lucifer Panay Giant Fruit Back 1892 Elliot, 1896 Panay Island, Philippines
Dobsonia chapmani Philippine Bare-backed Fruit Bat 1970 Rabor, 1952 Cebu and Negros Islands, Philippines
Mystacina robusta New Zealand Greater Short-tailed Bat 1960s Dwyer, 1962 Big South Cape Island, New Zealand
Nyctophilus howensis Lord Howe Long-eared Bat before 1500 McKean, 1975 Australia and New Caledonia
Nyctimene sanctacrucis Nendo Tube-nosed Bat 1907 Troughton, 1931 Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands
Phyllonycteris major Puerto Rican Flower Bat before 1500 Anthony, 1917 Puerto Rico
Pipistrellus sturdeei Sturdee's Pipistrelle after 1915 Thomas, 1915 Bonin Islands
Pteropus brunneus Dusky Flying Fox after 1874 Dobson, 1878 Percy Island, Australia
Pteropus loochoensis Okinawa Flying Fox No Data Gray, 1870 Ryukyu Island, Japan
Pteropus pilosus Large Palau Flying Fox before 1874 K. Andersen, 1908 Palau
Pteropus subniger Dark Flying Fox 1860s (Kerr, 1792) Mauritius and Reunion Islands
Pteropus tokudae Guam Flying Fox 1968 Tate, 1934 Guam
1 = The 'Authority' of a species is the name of the person who first described the species for science, the following date is the date of the description, if it is all in brackets it means the species has since been moved to a different genus.

Only three specimens of Pteropus tokudae were ever collected, the last being shot by hunters in 1968. Despite intensive field work on the islandís fruit bats, no observations of the Guam Fruit Bat have been recorded since this time.

Besides these the 2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, online version lists 29 species of bats as Critically Endangered and 37 as Endangered.

Bats are mentioned three times in the old testament. The first two references are Leviticus 11:19 and Deuteronomy 14:18, both these references are the same, they list the birds that the people of God are not allowed to eat, the list ends with the bat. The third reference is in Isaiah 2:20, it is merely a passing reference along with moles to represent animals that live with things that have been discarded. I found no reference to bats in the Koran.

In languages other than English of course a bat is not called a bat, here are some of the other names that people have given bats.

Albanian = Lakuriqnate
Bulgarian = Prillep
French = Murin
Finnish =
Danish = Flagermus
Dutch = Vleermuis
German = Fledermaus

Greek = Nicteridda
Croatian = Sismis
Hungarian = Denevér
Italian = Vespertilio
Lithuanian = Peleausis
Norwegian = Flaggermus
Portugese = Morcego

Romanian = Liliacul
Russian = Notchiitsa
Slovenian = Netopir
Spanish = Murciélago
Swedish = Fladdermus
Turkish = Yarasa

Remember, bats are big-hearted animals, so love them.


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