May 2022
Considering Bats

It’s now widely accepted that some Chinese bats were the source of the Covid-19 virus. This isn’t really the fault of the bats, since they were taken out of their home caves to be eaten by humans who should have known better. Every species of animal, including bats and humans, is a reservoir of very specific viruses and other microbes that have evolved along with their hosts and live happily inside them — until some human cuts them open and creates a “spillover,” an epidemic like Covid, Ebola or HIV.

But that human ignorance doesn’t obscure the fact that bats are, in some ways, much more advanced than we are. Although we humans excel (sometimes) in pure thinking, we’re relatively primitive when we compare our senses with the highly developed capabilities of other species. Animals all around us are able to see, smell, feel, taste and hear better than we can.

For instance, bats have sonar-based hearing that is sophisticated beyond our imagination. They can fly and hunt in total darkness due to their ability to use echoes of their own voices to create useful images. The saying “blind as a bat” is completely false. In addition to the sonar, bats have eyes that let them see quite well in daylight. Their brains then perfectly integrate that visual input with the sonar to create a pictures of their surroundings far superior to our vision-only imaging. Where a fast-moving object can appear as a blur to us, a bat sees it with total clarity.

It gets better. Most bats in Arizona are carnivores that make their livings by snatching insects in mid-air, in the dark. Some catch up to half their body weight in one night using that highly evolved sonar system, which automatically varies the loudness of their outgoing “voice” as well as its duration and interval. These pulses, which would sound to us like clicks if they were in our frequency range, change in volume and duration depending on whether the bat is just surveying the area or about to grab some flying food. Nearing a target, the bat clicks more softly so the stronger returning echoes don’t overwhelm its hearing.

Their frequency may rise to 160-190 chirps per second, known to researchers as “terminal buzz,” enabling the bat to accurately localize and snatch an evasive quarry. As a result, millions of bats eat billions of bugs that would otherwise plague farmers and homeowners. Bats are good.

Despite this benefit, there’s a strong human prejudice against bats that began long before the recent pandemic. Whether it’s because they operate in the dark or that some bat species reputedly suck blood, or just because their sharp-nosed faces are so ugly, we don’t know, but it’s a very old bias.

For example, early Christian culture portrayed angels as having the wings of birds where demons were pictured as ugly, fearsome bats. Even with the revelations of modern science, many people haven’t outgrown that intolerance.

We lived for many years in a woodland cabin and during the summer would often open the windows at night for fresh air and the sounds of the forest. One of my favorite recollections was when a bat would enter in search of flying insects and briefly check out the inside before departing. We didn’t worry about them being trapped, because, unlike birds, bats are able to see closed glass windows as barriers, and can easily find their way out.

The subtle sound of a bat’s wings fluttering around the cabin’s interior, in our half-asleep state, created enchanting memories of their visits.

Writer and photographer Bill Perry is a strong advocate for the natural world.

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