What a difference a year makes. Last October I wrote the post The Knights of the Night and the text is below. The extreme climate changes which occurred in many places on Earth brought the catastrophic death of thousands of bats in Queensland, Australia. Not able to withstand temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius high, the bats plummeted to the ground. The volunteers from an animal rescue centre rushed to save as many babies as possible. Trish Wimberley, the wonderful woman who set up the Wildlife Trauma Centre, has been bringing up bat babies, thus not only saving the next generation of these important mammals but also providing a unique study into their intelligence, self-awareness and their ability to connect with their carer.
The fact that they are so very cute also helps to raise our determination to insist that governments worldwide start taking our concerns seriously, and stop industrialisation everywhere and anywhere (Amazon forest fires) and building on the green belt here (UK), among many other places in other countries. When we destroy Earth, it will be too late to then realise that we can’t eat money or cement.
Halloween being just around the corner, my thoughts turned to bonfires and to the atmospheric darkness of autumn nights, and then to bats. The folklore of many countries includes bats. Sometimes their flesh was used as a cure for various ailments, sometimes as part of witchcraft ceremonies (as in Macbeth). Then there is the malicious association with Count Dracula, and a more accurate one as a weather prediction – bats flying early in the evening meant a good next day ahead. The name originated from Scandinavia but was also associated with a ‘flying mouse’ as in German – Fledermaus. Now we know that appearance is misleading since bats are genetically closer to humans than to mice.
Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, one of my favourite childhood books:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a teatray in the sky.”
Apart from birds, bats are the only warm-blooded creatures which manage to take to the air. There are two groups of bats: those who feed on fruit and flowers and those who eat insects. The bats in the former group use smell to locate food, but insect-eating bats use echolocation. They fold their wings like vellum umbrellas, and they can see in the dark, despite having quite poor vision, because they can navigate safely by emitting high-pitched sound-squeaks that ‘bounce’ off anything in their way. There are many types of bats, and all of them are fascinating. Their flying ability allows them the freedom of travel. In Australia, the only creature who came from the outside was a bat, and the forensic examination of the fossil of one bat proved that it arrived millions of years ago from France.
To some people, bats seem ugly because of their hairy faces, leathery wings with elongated fingers and bodies that closely resemble those of mice. To me, they are not only beautiful but extraordinarily well-designed. The skin membrane between the fingers allows them to fly, and the folded wings provide safety when they sleep upside-down, hanging by their claws. On the ground, they are clumsy because their knees bend backwards which makes walking difficult. All bats have a good set of teeth and large ears, useful for echolocation. There are 950 species of bats in the world but in Britain, there are just: Pipistrelle, Horseshoe Bat, Brown Long-eared Bat, Natterer’s Bat and Noctule Bat and a few others. The female nurses her baby while flying, an amazing achievement as the baby is a quarter of her weight. Females only start breeding after they are several years old and they have an unusual system of delayed fertilisation. If they are not in tip-top condition in the spring, they can prevent fertilisation by keeping sperm separated from the eggs after mating. Bats live a surprisingly long life, about 30 years or more.
The 11th-century market town where I live nestles alongside the Grand Canal. In summer, just after dusk, you can see groups of low-flying bats busy hunting for insects which are plentiful above the waterways. A small bat can devour 3000 insects in one night. It is necessary for the bats to gain as much fat as possible to be safe during the harsh winter months. After feasting as much as possible in autumn, when cold weather arrives and insects become scarce, bats hibernate. They like cool places like caves, abandoned mine shafts, barns or even attics of old houses and churches, as long as the places are quiet with a stable temperature and no draughts.
Here is my picture of some of my friends, bat included.