In a perfect world, the only mammal allowed to fly would be baby polar bears, and they’d occasionally land on you to give you a hug. And you’d say, “Hey get off me, crazy baby polar bear, I’m late for work!” But you’d be giggling the whole time and the baby polar bear would know you weren’t in the least bit serious about it getting off you. And as soon as the baby polar bear grew large enough to kill (~26 days), it would lose its ability to fly and go live in a zoo.
Sadly, that’s not the case. Yet another strike against Nature. Instead, we’re left with this:
‘I carry rabies, SARS and a copy of the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe.’
And so, bats (Order Chiroptera, Family Heebie, Genus Jeebies) are the only mammals that can fly1. The some odd 1,100 different species of bats can be divided into two main groups – or suborders – called Megachiroptera (megabats) and Microchiroptera (microbats). But while you might think that megabats are larger and microbats smaller, the categories actually have nothing to do with size, a fact that has driven many an etymologist over the thin edge of the cave of insanity.
While megabats generally eat fruit and fly by sight (easy), most microbats feed on insects. A few enjoy the blood of small mammals (their hematophagy is mentioned here solely to placate the etymology crowd). Microbats largely hunt at night using an incredibly sophisticated natural GPS system called echolocation. It’s a lot like active sonar in that the bat emits a series of ultrasonic ‘pings’ from its throat and then processes the returning echoes to construct a highly-detailed mental map of the landscape and its unfortunate prey. It’s different from sonar in that instead of being a clean backlit computer panel manned by officers in smart military uniforms, it’s organic and manned by a dreadful, flying, blood-thirsty mammal running the equations in real-time.
‘Scream all you want. It only gives me a perfect 3D map of your mouth.’
So now, it is at least clear that whoever coined the phrase ‘blind as a bat’ was as misguided as a rock. The bat’s echolocation is so disturbingly accurate, it can “see” the beating wings of a moth in absolute darkness and even catch the insect mid-flight. And here we thought it was cool when the Dark Knight inexplicably linked all the mobile phones to make a virtual image of Gotham City. Well, truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s also rarely two and a half hours long.
Given all this awesomeness (the flying in total darkness, the echolocation, the flying, the hanging upside down, the periodic forays into vampiredom, the flying), one can be forgiven for thinking the bat a natural choice for a nocturnal, stygian superhero. Dig a little deeper, however, and one has to wonder if Batman properly vetted the bat before settling on an ‘overall concept.’ In communicable disease circles, bats are known as vectors for a wide range of nasty pathogens. They are responsible for the large majority of human rabies cases. They carry SARS and maybe even Ebola. And their copious poop (known as guano2) tends to cultivate a fungus that can lead to a respiratory illness in humans called histoplasmosis. This may explain why the third Robin died from acute histoplasmosis in a five-part graphic novel entitled ‘An Awkward Death in the Family.’
Guano. The least exciting part of Alfred’s job.
But even allowing for their habits of carrying disease, hanging upside down in damp caves, and flying around at night using sonar to find sources of blood, bats do give something back to their community. They eat a lot of bugs, which is always appreciated. Not as exciting as dangling villains from rooftops, but one could argue it’s equally important. Also, many species pollinate plants. Furthermore, they are instrumental in distributing the seeds of plants, albeit via indiscriminate pooping. But come on, this is pro bono work here. Also, they’re said to be not altogether untasty, though the wings are a bit tough.
And so, with the bat, there is good and bad, positive and potentially severe negatives, upsides and upside downsides – such is the nature of Batman.
1 There are some mammals, such as the ‘flying squirrel’ that can glide. There is also a mammal that can build large machines in which to fly. To be precise, the bat is the only mammal that enjoys powered flight without having to go through Dallas-Fort Worth.
2 Bat guano is highly valued as a fertilizer. So much so that the American Congress passed a hilarious little piece of legislation back in 1856 called the Guano Islands Act. It essentially allows American citizens to seize any island that contains guano deposits, so long as that island isn’t controlled by another government. So next time you’re vacationing on a deserted tropical island and you see a pile of bat poop, you may legally claim that island as a U.S. possession. That’s nice to know, right? For the benefit of Animal Review readers who may be questioning this assertion (and for good reason), here’s the exact legislation as copied from the online U.S. code collection of Cornell University Law School:
§ 1411. Guano districts; claim by United States
Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.
There you have it. You’re in the clear. Go nuts.