Creatures of the Night

Different species of bats, with details of heads, wing and teeth structure. Illus. in: Le regne animale / Georges Cuvier. Paris : Fortin, Masson et cie, [1836-1849]. pl. 24.

Halloween is here and neighborhoods will be filled with magical, mysterious, and mystical creatures such as devils, ghosts, zombies, werewolves, witches, and vampires. We will also see plenty of bats displayed in homes, windows, and yards. On this holiday of the supernatural, the bat (Order Chiroptera) is a real-life creature of the night which may have made its appearance on this planet 65 million years ago. 

With over 1,100 species, bats are the second largest, most widely distributed, and most diverse mammal group. To put it another way, 20 percent of all mammals are bats (from Bats From Evolution to Conservation, 2011) and they are found in every location across this planet with the exception of the Arctic, Antarctica and a few isolated islands. Bats range in size from the bumblebee bat, which happens to be the smallest mammal,  weighing about 2 grams to the 1 kilogram flying foxes which have wingspans over 1.5 meters.

The bat diet ranges from the specialized to the omnivorous; various species consume a wide variety of food such as insects, fish, reptiles, birds, fruit nectar, and seeds. A few years ago the Anoura fistulata (aka Tube-Lipped Nectar Bat) was discovered in Ecuador. This bat uses its extremely long tongue, which is the longest mammal tongue relative to body length,  to eat the flower Centropogon nigricans. As far as scientists know, this bat might be the only pollinator of this flower since no other animal has been seen visiting the plant. Some bats, such as  the New World Vampire Bat, feed on blood from prey.

Bats are also well known for being nocturnal, living in caves and using echolocation. These behaviors might have influenced the variety of legends created about bats. Over the centuries, cultures from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific-Asian region have included the bat in their myths, legends, and folklore. Typically bats are represented as sinister or demonic and appear in stories about the origins of night, death, and darkness.  The ancient Greeks associated bats with the underworld and were considered sacred by Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and wife of Hades. Similarly, in the New World, the Maya believed that one passed through the bat house region (Zotzilaha) of the underworld on the way to the depths of the earth. There is also folklore that suggests that bats flying around a house foretell death.

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of “Dracula” at the Mason Opera House, showing a large bat (1938)

The Azande of Central Africa talked about bats as vehicles of the souls of witches and various Old World Gypsy societies told stories of animals such as sheep, horses, cats, and snakes transformed into vampires. One of the first associations of bats and vampires in the Old World was in Bram Stokers’s 1897 work Dracula. Some suggest this association bewteen vampires and bats was brought to the Old World by European travelers to the New World- makes sense since the New World is where you find the real Vampire Bats.

Bats also play a role in fables that teach moral lessons. For example Aesop’s Fables  contains two tales featuring bats: The Birds, the Beasts and the Bat teaches us that The Deceitful have no Friends and The Bat and the Weasel teaches us to Set your Sails to the Wind.

From China a carved wooden ox with bat . Photo by A. Dickey, Oct. 2012.

There are also positive perceptions of bats.  Some cultures regard them as clever, lucky, and possessing magical qualities. In Macedonia the bat was considered to be the luckiest of all animals and its bones were thought to provide happiness. Fragments of bats were used as a good fortune talisman by Gypsy children who would wear a bag of dried fragments of a bat around their necks. In Bohemia the right eye of a bat carried in a waist pocket was thought to make one invisible. In China, the bat represents good luck and happiness, and you will often see the bat symbolized on its artifacts (see photo).

Today’s populations of U.S. bats are faced with the White-Nosed Syndrome (WNS), which is a white fungus that appears on the muzzle and other parts of hibernating bats.  WNS has killed an estimated 5.5 million bats in the Northeast and Canada. As you can imagine scientists are currently investigating this infection and searching for a way to control it.


One Comment

  1. michele eidensohn
    November 1, 2012 at 9:51 am

    The Museum of Natural History is having a fabulous exhibit on fireflies also entitled Creatures of the Night or something similar.
    A must see!!!

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