Batted About

By Jeffrey Kluger|Sunday, October 01, 1995
Generally speaking, I’ve never seen the appeal of Batman--and I don’t see how anybody could.

During my comic-book-reading years, costumed superheroes were pretty straightforward characters whose particular crime-fighting powers were clearly advertised by their names. There was Lightning Lad, who could fire bolts of electricity from his fingertips; Triplicate Girl, who could transform herself into three identical people at will; Bouncing Boy, who could turn into a ball and, well, bounce over his adversaries. If the teenage superheroes had matured, no doubt their powers would have matured with them, treating comic-book readers to such less-than-thrilling characters as Credit Kid, who enjoyed generous charge privileges on almost any planet in the galaxy; Adjustable-Rate Mortgage Boy, who could secure favorable loan terms in even the tightest housing market; and Elasticized Trousers Lad, who boasted an impressive collection of colorful Sans-a-Belt slacks. As long as the superheroes stayed young, however, they would continue to be made of pretty stern stuff.

The same could not be said for Batman. Applying a similar truth- in-advertising standard to a crime fighter named after a small, winged mammal would not exactly reveal what even the most inept criminal might have to fear from him. (It’s Batman! Quick, let’s get out of town before he hangs by his feet, eats a handful of moths, and leaves a giant pile of guano in his sleep chamber!) For this reason, most of the comic-book enthusiasts I grew up with generally gave the Bat-cat a pass, opting for the flashier heroes with the snappier powers.

But were we selling Batman short? Could a person with the powers of a bat do more impressive things than all that? The answer, of course, depends on just how remarkable the talents of a genuine bat actually are. To find out, I decided to consult the experts and take a trip to the headquarters of the American Bat Conservation Society in Rockville, Maryland.

The headquarters for what might be the nation’s most vocal group of human bat advocates operates out of neither a lab nor a Capitol Hill lobbying office but a backyard-bird-feeding supply store on Randolph Road in suburban Rockville. The business is jointly owned--and the bat group is jointly led--by Heidi Hughes, a naturalist by training, and her husband, Tom Valega, who was schooled as an organic chemist and at one time worked as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When I arrived at the store, there was little to distinguish it from any other birding supply shop I had ever seen: there were weeders and seeds, bird feeders and hedge clippers. There was also a congenial-looking woman standing behind the cash register wearing a floppy sweatshirt with a large, incongruous brooch pinned to the front. Or at least it appeared to be a brooch--provided that the brooches you’re used to wearing have fur, wings, tiny talons, and the ability to locomote across your clothing.

I’m Heidi, the woman said, extending her hand. And this, she added, indicating the mobile brooch, is Sweet Pee. Sweet Pee is a full- grown big brown bat we rescued several years ago after her mother was killed. Hughes said that the bat was somewhat acclimated to humans because it was raised by her from a two-day-old pup.

I leaned forward so I could get a better look at Hughes’s singular shirt ornament, and it became obvious that if she was thinking of diversifying into women’s fashion accessories, Karl Lagerfeld had nothing to worry about. Staring back at me from Hughes’s chest was a three-inch clump of what appeared to be fur and leather, with small, dark eyes, a large, wide mouth, and jowls that made Howell Heflin look svelte. But although I noticed Sweet Pee’s lack of physical gifts, Hughes evidently didn’t.

Isn’t she adorable? she asked proudly. You’re free to hold her if you like, though we do warn people that she still gets nervous when she’s handled. That’s why we spell her name P-e-e instead of P-e-a.

I opted to let Sweet Pee be--at least until I had some assurance that she’d been placed on a low-fluid diet--and took the opportunity to learn a bit about the Bat Conservation Society. Hughes established her group four years ago, and at the time, she was spending most of her free hours lecturing to backyard garden clubs on the distinctly more mainstream topic of North American birds. In the popular mind, of course, birds and bats are two sides of the same zoological coin, with birds representing the winged good guys and bats representing what bird parents warned their kids they’d turn out to be if they dropped out of school, fell in with a bad crowd, and didn’t quit watching all those James Dean movies. Hughes did not feel that way, seeing the dark, furred bat as no less worthy a citizen of the garden than the bright, feathered bird. When she tried to make this point in her talks, however, her audiences balked.

People have always thought of bats as somehow ominous, somehow sinister, she said. I always admired them as one of those unsung creatures that volunteer to sleep away their days so they can work nature’s night shift.

Hughes decided to make it her mission to reverse the bad bat rap, founding a nonprofit group devoted to sponsoring bat lectures in local schools, conducting regular bat seminars in a classroom behind her store, and when called upon, rescuing injured or abandoned bats from attics and yards around the community. Today, several years into her crusade, her bat passion remains undimmed.

One of the first points Hughes stresses in preaching the bat gospel is that whether we higher primates like it or not, bats are here to stay. There are about 4,000 species of mammal in the world, she said, and about 900 of them are bats. That’s a huge proportion.

Such extensive speciation means enormous diversity, and bats are nothing if not physically varied. The smallest bat ever documented is the butterfly bat, the hands-down runt of the bat family litter with a wing- tip-to-wing-tip measurement of barely an inch. The largest is the menacingly named Flying Fox, a South American bat with a body the size of a small dog and a wingspan of five to six feet that could accommodate everything but propellers, flaps, and a Pan Am insignia. In North America the bat population is a little more limited, with most of our 40 or so indigenous species falling within the three- to six-inch range.

But a small body does not necessarily mean a small appetite, and bats spend the majority of their waking hours trying to satisfy theirs. For untutored humans, it is this business of what bats eat that causes the most queasiness, largely because of one singularly unappetizing item in the bat diet: blood. Despite a food-chain bill of fare that runs from plankton to pot roast, lichens to linguine, bats are clearly not ordering from the brunch menu at Lutèce--and yet Hughes insists that their reputation for hemolust is largely, though not entirely, undeserved.

Of the 900 known types of bat, she said, only 3 are vampire species. And those species are not nearly as unpleasant as people think.

A vampire bat on the prowl for a type O entrée will approach its prey--generally a cow or some other type of livestock--not from the air but from the ground. Climbing inconspicuously up to the fur just above the hoof, it will make a small incision in the flesh and then lap up the blood that flows from it, using an anticoagulant chemical in its saliva to prevent clotting.

Though popular lore is filled with fanciful images of insatiable bats drinking unsuspecting animals dry, Hughes said, the fact is, in a single feeding a single bat will consume little more than a teaspoon of blood. In addition to the courtesy they show their unwitting hosts, vampires are also among a few species of bat known to exhibit altruism. When a member of a vampire colony is ill and unable to feed on its own, Hughes said, another member will often fly out, drink a blood meal, and regurgitate it for the sick colony mate. And you thought tapioca with raisins was bad.

For most other bats, the foodstuff of choice is not blood but bugs--and lots of them. In general, the smaller an animal is and the faster it moves, the more it must eat just to keep up with itself. Perhaps the best-known example of this phenomenon is the always-ravenous hummingbird, whose buzzing wings gave it its name. But if the hummingbird can hum, the bat can sing, conduct a chamber group, and spend the occasional weekend performing at benefits.

Bats require so much energy to keep themselves going, Hughes said, that some species will consume about their weight in insects nightly. But this presents a problem, because no sooner do they complete an extended feeding session than they have to take off and fly again.

In order to lighten themselves enough to become airworthy, bats will often pass the waste from their last meal as soon as they finish their next one. Vampire bats, which subsist on an all-liquid diet, are known to urinate even as they drink, a practice that may be perfectly common among patrons of big-city sports bars but is generally frowned on by most other mammals.

Even with such an all-you-can-eat diet, most bats are not able to scare up enough food to meet all their nutritional needs, and the animals have thus developed a method for conserving what they do eat. When not hunting for food, Hughes explained, bats will often enter a torpid state during which their metabolism slows and their body temperature--which is usually a furnacelike 110 degrees Fahrenheit--plummets until it matches the surrounding air. In the winter, this can even mean an internal thermometer dropping to freezing.

When people find bats on the ground, Hughes said, they often believe they’re freezing to death because the bats seem to be shivering. But this is just the bat’s way of warming itself back up to its normal temperature before taking wing.

In order to illustrate this point, Hughes reached into a nearby cage and produced a light brown Mexican free-tailed bat so that I could listen to it shiver. Before she could lift it to my ear, however, the doorbells jingled and a middle-aged woman with her teenage son and daughter entered. Hughes, with Mexican free-tailed still in hand and Sweet Pee still affixed to shirt, approached them.

Can I help you? she asked.

Actually, the mother said, we didn’t come to buy anything, we just came to see Sweet Pee.

Hughes, looking nothing like a shop owner who had just been told she would not be making a sale, attached the free-tailed to her shirt, plucked Sweet Pee off, and held the little bat forward to the family to see. The mother leaned in cautiously; the girl leaned away; the boy smiled broadly.

Here, Hughes said to the mother. Hold her.

I don’t think so, the woman demurred. Believe me, just getting this close is a big thing.

She is sort of cute, the girl, who had moved slightly closer, now conceded.

Say that again, Hughes instructed.

She’s cute, the girl repeated.

That she is.

When the family left, Hughes had me listen to the free-tailed bat, which was indeed purring like a cat. I also noticed, however, that I could not only hear the bat, I could also smell it--and the odor it exuded was the slightly sweet, slightly pungent fragrance of an old church. I mentioned this to Hughes, who rewarded me with a huge smile.

Exactly! A lot of bats have distinctive, musky smells, and of all the places those and other bats like to congregate, churches are among the favorites. If you’re a bat, you can’t do much better than a church since it’s quiet, it’s usually empty during the week, and it’s always empty at night.

With the issues of bat bouquet, bat diet, and bat temperature resolved, Hughes encouraged me to lob her any other queries I had, in hopes of debunking myths, exploding misconceptions, and generally burnishing the bat’s overall image. As fast as I could serve, Hughes volleyed, and in a short time I learned a lot. What, I wanted to know, is this business of hanging upside down? Is it poor circulation? Lousy balance? A way to achieve ruddy cheeks and a rosy complexion in even the dankest limestone grotto?

It’s their legs, Hughes explained simply. Bats have these tiny matchstick limbs that are light enough to allow them to fly but not sturdy enough to support their weight. If they tried to stand while they were roosting or sleeping, they’d fall right over. Instead they simply hang.

What about the whole getting-tangled-in-your-hair thing? Do bats really have an urge to barnstorm a bouffant? Dive-bomb a ducktail? Would they have a clue about what to do if they encountered a Sam Donaldson or a Ted Koppel?

You can relax about your hair, Hughes said. Bats have no interest in that; what they are interested in, however, are insects. As you walk through a field or a woods, you stir up flying bugs that rise from the ground and swarm around your head. Bats detect the motion and swoop in for a meal, and since you can’t see the insects, you’re likely to assume you’re the target.

What about bat lust? Although I’ve made it a point to steer clear of dates who are fully furred, stay up all night, and flap about on membranous wings, how do you manage when that’s your only choice?

Bats are rather enthusiastic breeders, Hughes said. You can pretty much guarantee that in any given spring, most of the females are pregnant. Since the females hibernate in groups through the winter, she said, if you find a lone bat in your attic, it’s most likely a male.

Given Hughes’s mastery of her field and her willingness to share what she knew, I could have gone on in this vein all afternoon. Alas, I was not the only person in Maryland thinking about winged mammals that day, and before long the phone started ringing and the doorbells started jingling with Rockville locals wanting to talk bats. Is it safe to pick up a bat you find in your house? a visitor wanted to know. Not without covering it with a thick dish towel first, Hughes admonished. Is it possible to find a two- foot bat in a suburban backyard? a caller asked. Not if that backyard is in North America, Hughes said. What is possible is to see a six-inch bat, get scared, and conclude it was two feet long. As the questions multiplied and more questioners arrived, Hughes put her Mexican free-tailed bat away, made certain Sweet Pee was secured to her shirt, and waded into the growing group. I wasn’t sure whether she could handle the bat needs of her entire community, but judging by the day I was there, a few more stores might indeed be in order. Perhaps this is a job for Franchise Lad.
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