Drumm: An ode to bats, the silent superheroes

Jack Drumm, Columnist

While recently perusing through a news article, I came across a piece by Sarah Larson on, of all things, bats. I’m no spelunker nor am I a bat enthusiast; in fact, I tend to shout, duck and cover like most people when one approaches me. However, I am never one to deny the animal kingdom its place in the spotlight, and Larson’s piece got me thinking about the incredibly complex mechanisms that exist in the natural world that affect our daily lives so profoundly, yet so silently. They are the unheralded hero, the vilified mammal of the animal kingdom, and it’s time to take another look at bats.

I think fondly of a season three episode of “The Office,” when a bat found its way into the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. Creed, after grabbing a can of pesticide, proclaims with angry stoicism, “Animals can’t feel pain.” It is a laugh-out-loud moment on several fronts, but most of all for the blatant cruelty toward the — in the words of Kelly — “living thing with feelings and a family!”

Creed, obviously, is wrong, and the truth is just the opposite. Bats — furry, strange mammals that sleep upside down and missed the Darwinian memo that flying animals should lay eggs — are highly sophisticated and one of the most important species in food webs across six continents. They are important pollinators, seed distributors and insect controllers. Their importance is perhaps most pronounced in tropical rainforests, where frugivorous species of bats distribute seeds and ensure the replenishing of tropical trees and understory shrubs. Researchers estimate the economic value of bats in North America is approximately $22.9 billion dollars per year, since the bats significantly reduce pesticide application. This makes them one of the most economically important animal species on the continent. Even looking into the future, biologists say bats are one of the most important bioindicators (species that are instrumental in assessing the development of climate change) on Earth.

In addition to “macro” impacts, bats affect people on a more individual basis, too. Just one little brown bat — “little brown bat” being the actual species name — can eat more than 1,200 mosquitos in a single hour, which is fantastic because I hate mosquitos. A family of free-tailed bats can consume nearly two tons of crop-consuming moths in just one night, which is also fantastic because I don’t want my food to be eaten by moths. In small ways, these creatures greatly affect our lives.

Why, then, are bats among the most imperiled land mammals in the United States and in Canada? Why are these creatures so maligned? The simple answer is that we can’t embrace what we don’t understand. However, we don’t fear bats like other animals; society doesn’t fear a “bat attack” like it does a shark attack. True, there is a subfamily of bats whose sole food source is blood, and that is veritably terrifying. But, according to biologist Merlin Tuttle, “(Vampire bats) have a social order similar to that of primates. Like humans, they share food and information, adopt orphans, and practice reciprocal altruism … (they’re) extremely intelligent, even affectionate.” Isn’t that incredible? Blood-sucking flying mammals … that are altruistic and affectionate. It’s this kind of beautiful irony that captivates my interest.

Maybe all this fear started for us when the writers at DC Comics decided that Bruce Wayne became Batman largely because he himself was afraid of bats because he had been attacked by them in his youth. Maybe it started when Spanish conquistadors heard rumors that all New World bats were blood-sucking. Maybe it’s repressed, Freudian anger that bats were the mammals that grew wings and not humans. Whatever the case, it’s time to appreciate them for the awesome, little animals they are.

However, just because I did some bat research for this article doesn’t mean I’m completely comfortable with them. They’re inherently weird-looking and so terribly misunderstood, but their importance cannot be gainsaid. I’m rooting for the underdog, the unsung ecological superhero, the amazing animal that contributes to our lives without us even knowing it.

Jack Drumm is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.