Monday, June 10, 2013

Loving Your Local Bat

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published June 13, 2013© 2013   

It’s not everybody who can brag that their aunt was one of the world’s foremost authorities on bats’ ovaries.  (Okay, maybe the only one?)  Even my mother, tiring of explaining her physiologist sister’s unique life work, would describe physiology to inquiring friends as something you did to rehabilitate invalids. 

My aunt would have agreed that neither bats nor reproductive cycles were popular dinner party topics, and definitely not in combination.  Although my aunt was an ardent conservationist who dedicated her retirement years to education about her furry research subjects and their importance to the planet, she originally came to bat research as part of twinning experiments in mammals (and yes, bats are mammals), a topic of great interest at the time to sheep and cattle raisers who would have liked to produce two calves or lambs at a time rather than one.  Cattle were too expensive to be research subjects in quantity but bats produce only one offspring per year, making them ideal.  As my aunt once observed, “elephants were never considered.”
The estrous cycle of myotis lucifugus, a.k.a. the North American Little Brown Bat, was such a common subject at our house that I didn’t think twice about making it the topic of my fifth grade oral science report.  It was also the shortest oral report on record.  The second Mrs. Novak heard the word “ovary,” I was back in my seat.  You would have thought I was doing some X-rated “Bats in Heat!” thing.  I still think my classmates would have liked it.  I even had pictures!

Among my favorite childhood memories was going on bat collecting expeditions with my aunt to rural areas of Kentucky where farmers were only too happy to have the bats removed from their attics or barns, insisting on gifting her efforts with a bottle of backyard moonshine which my teetotaler aunt donated to my father, who, after she left, used to clean his shoes. Whither there are bats there also tend to be other flying creatures, like wasps, so my ladder-perched aunt had a protective covering over her head as she expertly netted her elusive targets in the pitch dark then determined their sex (given her half-ounce subjects, I’m guessing this took very good eyes) before passing them down to me to deposit ever so gently (you don’t want to crush their delicate little wings) in either the male or female collection cage. 
My aunt only wanted females but the farmer usually wanted all of them gone, so we would let the males go closer to home.  The females would undergo a series of hormone shots that I’m sure would make today’s human IVF subjects hugely sympathetic. 

A side interest she developed was whether bats would fly across water, a homing experiment she undertook by arriving at our family’s summer home on a barrier island five miles off the Jersey shore with 150 bats at 2 a.m. one August morning.   We were all routed from bed and arranged in assembly line fashion at the dining room table where each bat was weighed, banded, and its number recorded, while my father kept mixing more martinis and wondering aloud if this were all a bad dream.
 Unfortunately, when we finished at 5 a.m. someone forgot to lock the cage securely and when we awoke later that morning, all 150 bats were loose in the house.  Absolutely no one was allowed to open a door until all were accounted for, we kids netting a nickel-per-bat bounty. (The release site wasn’t intended to be our living room.) Ultimately none of the bats ever seemed to make it back to their home base in Ohio, one of the theories being that the mosquito population on Jersey barrier islands was way too good for them to even think about going elsewhere.

The lack of a significant bug population is why San Diego county isn’t home to as large a bat population.  But here’s why you should love your local bat.  Bats are vital for ecosystems; up to 98% of all rainforest regrowth comes from seeds that have been spread by fruit bats.  They are the ultimate natural pest control, consuming up to 2,000 mosquitos each per night.  They also eat gnats, moths and beetles and more importantly, many of the worst agricultural pests. 
Alas, bats win the award for Worst Press Ever – undeservedly so.  They are not blind (“blind as a bat”), are gentle, clean, intelligent, and have zero interest in becoming entangled in your hair.  In fact, they would appreciate it you would stop with the broom thing.  They don’t “carry” rabies and have an extremely low incidence of it (less than 1/10th of 1 percent) but, like any mammal, can contract it from another rabid animal.   Those huge vampire bats you see in movies?  Only in South America, and even then, their weight is actually a whopping two ounces.  Wing span?  Seven inches. 

Bats can live over 20 years although they usually don’t due to systematic extermination by ignorant humans, by aerial pesticide spraying at dusk (which is when bats come out) and now a baffling fungus called White Nose Syndrome.  A number of bat species are now on the endangered lists.  My aunt, before her death, created a program to distribute bat houses to encourage bat colonies, and to educate the public about the vital role of bats in the world’s ecosystems.  But as she advised me after my ill-fated fifth grade report, “Maybe keep the ovaries out of it.”


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