Bats are familiar subjects in adages and aphorisms – blind as a bat … like a bat out of hell … right off the bat … bats in the belfry. The earth hosts a large variety of bats. With more than 1300 species, bats comprise one of the most diverse mammalian groups. Many are insect eaters and others are fruit eaters, which live primarily in tropical areas and are often known as flying foxes. Three species consume blood of other animals. With wings sometimes described as webbed fingers, bats are the only flying mammals and belong to the Order Chiroptera (hand wings). Unlike birds, bats can move their wings independently. Currently, bat flight is being studied and meticulously analyzed for ideas that could help design future aircraft. Bats' relatively short, stumpy legs have feet with grappling claws that enable them to hang upside down. Most bat species have a sonar-like ability to emit high-pitched sounds whose echoes provide information about their surroundings. This process puzzled scientists for centuries and was not confirmed until 1938. Bats are social and familial animals, and a mother bat has the ability to locate her offspring among millions of infant bats.
Historically, bats have often been associated with evil, magic, and madness. They don't have a particularly good reputation in many cultures. In 1332 a Frenchwoman, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne, “was publicly burned to death because ‘crowds of bats’ were seen about her house and garden.” The Bible, in Leviticus 11:19, warns that bats are among the unclean birds not to be eaten. In European art and literature, bats often had a satanic association. Scenic art including bats, painted by artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Francisco Goya, portray the bat as being associated with the “darker forces of life.” Literary works by Francis Bacon and William Blake also portray bats negatively. And, of course, Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, though more related to wolves, has a great association with blood-feeding vampire bats.
Though mostly associated with evil, in many instances bats are acclaimed. A seventeenth-century royal physician of England and France concocted a “Balsam of Bats,” using bats, earthworms, stag marrow, and a few other less-than-delightful ingredients to cure hypochondria. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, Ariel, a ghostly spirit who interacts with other creatures of the natural world, sings a song whose last line reveals that “on the bat's back I do fly after summer merrily.” The Chinese and Japanese use bat imagery in art, including commercial art, where bats have been used to sell fireworks, matches, and cigarettes. Japan's oldest cigarette brand, Golden Bat, still retains the colorful bat image after more than 100 years. The popular Strauss opera Die Fledermaus (The Bat) features a character costumed as a bat.
There is much more to learn in this captivating volume. Some examples are the discussions of the complex evolution of bats, the account of how echolocation was established, including the bizarre experiments of Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani, how Batman rose to fame, the comparison of bat flight and Star Wars, and the ideas that philosophers have about bats, including Thomas Nagel's essay on consciousness, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
Readers will also learn how bat guano was used in combat during the Civil War and how President Franklin Roosevelt endorsed a bizarre project to develop “Bat Bombs,” weapons using live bats, to fight the Japanese in World War II. Also depicted is the p'ea (flying fox), an excruciating Samoan coming-of-age ritual for men that involves imprinting their bodies from the hips to the knees with a traditional tattoo. An interesting story of British artist Jeremy Deller, whose studio bears the Post-it note message “BATS MATTER,” reveals his idea that humans can learn from bats because “they manage to live together in great numbers in relative peace.”
Part of Reaktion Books' ambitious Animal series, which presents various animals from a natural and cultural history perspective, this exhaustively researched volume is appropriate for college or advanced high school readers. It would be a valuable addition to a classroom library. Profusely illustrated with captivating photographs, it also includes a timeline of the bat, extensive endnote documentation of the text, a bibliography, a list of associations and websites, and an index.