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Time for a revamp

Feared as disease carriers, bats can save lives

No species of animal has been more demonised in the modern era than the bat. First, Bram Stoker’s Dracula meant horror lovers everywhere linked the winged Chiroptera to the myth of human vampires: “he can be as bat, as Madam Mina saw him on the window at Whitby.”

Then along came Covid-19, with scientists’ assumption (not yet disproved, if widely challenged) that the virus leapt from bat hosts in rural caves to mammals that ended up in the wet market in the Chinese region of Wuhan. Once again, the bat was the villain. But as a devotee of bats – someone who has studied their behaviour and biology for nearly twenty years – I feel we should align ourselves with the Chinese concept of bats as fu, or good fortune. Not to be confused with flu, of course. Certainly, we should take a better look at what we can understand from bats, since they make up a fifth of Earth’s mammals.

As a naturalist born in an animal sanctuary, I’ve always had a thing for bats. I loved watching them dart about the garden, untouchable, in and out of the aviaries where the poor, sick birds we were caring for clung to their perches and their lives.

In Chinese arts and crafts, a bat is a male symbol of fertility, usually depicted close to the female one, a peach, because the wild ancestors of today’s peach trees depended on bats to disperse their seeds, and us humans depended on them for our shared harvest. It’s a time-honoured salute to a perfectly stitched, reciprocal relationship. They sow, we farm, everyone reaps.

Bats have around 65 million years of evolution under their wing, while we modern humans began walking the planet a mere sneeze of a few-hundred-thousand years ago. Bats are the only mammals able to sustain flying for a prolonged period, while echolocating their prey. In fact, bats aren’t blind and the non-echolocating fruit bats can see very well indeed. But echolocation in the dark creates a superior sound picture that can be even more highly detailed than conventional eyesight, able to identify the twitch of a cat’s whisker.

As mammals, humans have a similar skeletal structure to bats, except that their wings substitute our hands, and their knees bend the opposite way. In fact we share 95.8-97.4% of their DNA. The main difference is that they have adapted over millennia to use their physical attributes much more fully and connectedly than we do. Unlike most humans, they can also rotate and stare all the way up their back passage. They can flip on their feet so as not to urinate in their own face.

Humans have learned a lot in the past century by examining bats. Rudimentary military sonar exploited the Doppler effect (as bats do) in 1918, while fully-fledged echolocation was first employed by observing bats in 1938 by Donald Griffin and Robert Galambos in a secret military project just before WWII. Today, the US Navy are trying to map a 3D world of sound deep underwater by studying bats’ brains. Ostensibly they want to distinguish mines from natural objects, among other things. So far, however, they’ve only managed to develop technology that takes twenty to 30 seconds to process an echo in the deep sea, whereas bats take less than a tenth of a millisecond in the sky.

The downside of all this innovation is that it’s too often developed for war and defence, which is where all the funding is. Furthermore, the US navy’s sonar testing exercises disturb, injure, strand and sometimes kill sea mammals. Effectively, they are using bat know-how in a way that potentially destroys endangered marine life like killer whales, dolphins, seals and walruses.

It’s clear we have far to go when it comes to harnessing bat ingenuity to benefit the planet. We can learn so much more from other species about how to take positive action and waste fewer resources: to borrow and fix, not blame and blight. Draculin, the inspiringly named anti-coagulant for humans, developed from the saliva of a vampire bat, is one such borrow and fix. The bat spittle contains properties that keep their victims’ blood runny so they can keep returning to sup. For us, it’s helped create a life-saving blood thinner that can prevent certain types of stroke and blood clotting.

Other benefits for humans include Griffin and Galambos’ use of the Doppler effect in peacetime for ambulances and X-rays. It has also helped significant human applications such as helping blind people “see” through sound, by using clicks or tap sticks to harness their bat-like, super-sense hearing and echolocate their surroundings. Bats helped give birth to human sonar.

Scientists believe bats could be a key to understanding human longevity. According to size, bats are among the longest-living mammals

Scientists believe bats could be a key to understanding human longevity. According to size, bats are among the longest-living mammals, with a 30-40-year lifespan. Apparently, their secret involves going slowly into hibernation as pulse and blood pressure gradually lower – good news for those of us who procrastinate. I much prefer this method to Wim Hoffman’s recommended ice baths for longer life: drifting gently to sleep feels far more evolved.

Their reputation for being disease-carriers is also being turned on its head as scientists around the world race to understand bats’ superior immune systems. It seems bats are able to carry viruses sometimes deadly to humans, such as SARS and (possibly) Covid-19, without developing it themselves, which could shed light not only on inflammation and ageing in humans but also how we can learn to be carriers not sufferers.

Perhaps the lesson is, if you can’t beat them join them, as Ozzy Osbourne famously demonstrated when he bit the head off a bat for a stage stunt, observing: “I got rabies shots for biting the head off a bat but that’s OK – the bat had to get Ozzy shots.” Quite possibly only 100% tequila shots would counteract what was pumping through Ozzy’s veins back in those wild days, which would have been possible thanks to the Lesser Long Nosed or Tequila bat, which is the sole pollinator of the agave, the single plant species from which Mexican tequila is produced, and a foundation stone of the nation’s export economy. In the first quarter of this year alone, Mexico’s exports of the aromatic green stuff were up by 32% and Mexico’s tequila industry is currently estimated to be worth around $4 billion.

Trio of rare lesser horseshoe bats about to take flight in a cave in Somerset

Mexico is home to over 138 species of bats, some of which can teach us to be better environmentalists. The famous Bracken Cave near San Antonio, Texas, harbours some twenty million Mexican Ringtail bats, which eat around 140 tons of insects a night. With their pest consumption, the bats save US farmers $23 bn dollars annually in not using harsh pesticides. Which begs the question, why aren’t we working with nature more? If a single bat can eat up to 2,000 mosquitoes a night, why aren’t we looking to them as one of the pathways out of pesticides? As the primatologist Jane Goodall said, “How did we ever think it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?”

Even drone research engineers are learning to build better flybots from study of the flapping of the aerodynamic bat’s wing, along with echolocation sound pictures. We wait to see what design for war this supports… but on the plus side they are using the same technology to improve parcel delivery and better crop-counting management.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously argued that while a human might be able to imagine what it is like to be a bat by taking “the bat’s point of view”, it would still be impossible “to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” I had this in mind the first time I dialled into the night sky with my bat detector, while training to be a bat guide at the London Wetland Centre. These silent, ghostly creatures pirouetted around my head, coruscating with echolocation, and the cacophony of noise was a veritable bacchanal – a squelchy bug feast. The sky was suddenly alive with the sound of predatory night life. This otherworldly experience sparked a creative synaesthesia in me – inspiring my opera commission for arts organisation ArtAngel called, “The 65million-year battle between Bat and Moth that hatched the Butterfly”. Created in collaboration with pianist Nat Woodcock, we wrote it for piano, human and bat voices as a surround-sound piece, the aim being to give the audience the sensual experience of being pursued to death by bat sonar.

It’s clear we must learn to live more in symbiosis with bats, not just for planetary health but also as we fight for our very survival as a species. Bats have been protected in this country since 1981, and even Queen Elizabeth, who was known to be fond of bats, is said to have permitted a small colony to remain inside the main hall at Balmoral, sometimes relocating errant ones herself, in a specially adapted butterfly net. So, Mr Osbourne, it’s off with your head if you harm another bat. These magnificent flying machines are leagues ahead of us in the evolution stakes.

Leading cultural entomologist Bridget Nicholls created Pestival (winner of an Observer Ethical Award), an international festival about “the art of being an insect”. She was the first International Art Fellow at the Zoological Society of London and was awarded a Top Female Explorer Award by the Explorers Club of New York in March 2022

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December 2022, Main Features

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