Bats 'R' Us – Almost

(This column first appeared in the May 29, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Last week I wrote to defend bats, our most beneficial wild mammals, and to urge you to set out bat houses for them, despite rare cases of bat rabies.

    This week I return to the subject of these distant relatives of ours.

    That use of the word "relatives" may strike many readers as unreasonable and some anti-evolutionists, I suppose, even as sacrilegious. I don't wish to press it as a philosophical issue, but I explore in this column how we and bats are similar and at the same time how we and bats differ.

    All of us have surely wished at one time or another that we could fly. Oh to be able to join Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. Fewer of us -- thank goodness -- worked at it, trying to sail out of barn lofts or second story windows with homemade kite wings. Still fewer actually make it by hang-gliding. Of course, airplanes carry us, but self-propelled flight, except in space, is tougher going. Although the cross-channel prize has been awarded to a bicyclist pedaling an ultra-light craft, it took several million dollars of engineering to accomplish that feat.

    In any case, let's see what it would take to reshape our body into that of a bat so we could manage their skittering nighttime flight.

    Of course, we'll first have to shrink down in size. Like Swift's Lilliputians, we'll reduce our linear measurements 12-fold.

    Now we'll modify our skeleton. We'll retain our bones but change them significantly. Our hands will differ most: we'll stretch the bones of our fingers to make them as long or longer than our arm bones. And we'll extend that small amount of skin between the bases of our fingers in order to give us webbing that will also attach to our arms, legs and torso. Voila, we have wings.

    Our thumbs? They become hooks on the front of those wings. Awkward on a horizontal surface, we'll use those thumbs to drag ourselves around.

    Our legs we'll reduce in size but we'll retain our toes to grasp and hold us in our normal resting position -- upside down. And our spine will stick out tail-like to provide the rear brace for both wings. It will become much more supple as we'll use the pouch formed as a basket to capture insects while we're in flight.

    Now we'll enlarge our chest muscles in order to power those wings.

    Change our head shape, wolf-man like, grow some fur and we've got most of the physical appearance.

    Except for our eyes and ears. We'll shrink our eyes as they will be little use to us at night. (After all we're not turning ourselves into owls. They have big eyes to see in dim light.) But like pitchers, little bats have big ears, so we have to enlarge ours and turn them forward. Why? Because we'll also modify our brains to process sound as do sonar and radar. In flight we'll make high-frequency chipping sounds that will echo back to our big ears and guide us even when no light at all is available. (Those big-eyed owls can't manage this feat.)

    Those are, of course, huge modifications. We've been on the operating table for millennia to accomplish them and we've spent additional millennia to learn how to use them. But all those changes are just that. There are few if any new structures and virtually all of our old structures remain. I certainly do not make the case that Bats 'R Us, but I think that we have remarkable affinities with these unusual masters of the skies.

    But a diet of bugs? No thanks.-- Gerry Rising

I once again recommend that anyone interested in bats explore the Bat Conservation International website and consider joining this important organization. Another website and another organization devoted to bats that you may wish to consider joining is Sue Barnard's Bats of San Diego. Ms. Bernard includes links to many other bat-related sites.