Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy halloween!

As a bat enthusiast this is definitely the time of year for celebrating the second most diverse order of mammals (second to rodents).

With over 1,200 species, bats do it all!

They are able to live in cold climates like Alaska and northern Europe but happily inhabit hot and dry deserts.

They fish, they echolocate, they fly, they eat insect pests, they pollinate and they disperse seeds to remote islands.

They find their babies amid colonies of thousands of other bat babies in the pitch black darkness of caves.

Even the blood eating ones have interesting behaviors like sharing meals!

Happy halloween!

Friday, October 14, 2011

What is a bat? Isn't it just a flying a rat?

Often people think bats are 'bugs,' birds, or rodents. Bats are certainly neither bugs (which as insects do not have an internal skeleton), nor are they birds which are actually related to dinosaurs. Instead like rodents bats are Mammals and do all sorts of mammal things like give birth to young they nurse. Additionally like other mammals they have hair, four-chambered hearts and different kinds of teeth. However, they are more closely related to us (Primates) or to a hedgehog (Eulipotophyla) then they are to a mouse. However the common assumption that they are mice or rats (Rodents) is reflected by the word for bats which in many languages includes reference to 'mouse' or 'rodent.' For example in German the word for bats is Fledermaus which literally translated means filtering mouse.

However, for a substantial period of time bats have been placed in their own Order (i.e. a taxonomic group) just like Rodents. The name of the Order bats are in is Chiroptera which means 'hand' and 'wing' based on the origins of their powered flight (see my evolution of flight post). Bats are further divided into two types which are referred to as Suborders. These two groups are the Megachrioptera and Microchiroptera.

Members of the Megachrioptera (a group of closely related species) are the largest bats. Mega is a Greek prefix meaning 'large' which refers to their large size. The species in this group are sometimes called flying foxes (see picture below to see their 'fox-like' faces) and are found in Australia and the South Pacific. Sometimes these bats are also called 'Fruit bats' given that nearly all of them rely entirely on fruit but this name is confusing because many Microchiroptera also eat fruit (for example my study species the Jamaican fruit bat and its relatives).

Microchriptera (aka 'Micro bats') however are generally small as their name suggests (Micro is a Greek prefix meaning 'small'). These closely related bats are usually very small but sometimes can be as large as small Megachiropterans. They are also nearly cosmopolitan in distribution (meaning they occur globally). They are found from the far north in places such as Alaska and Scandinavia to the extreme South such as South Africa, and Southern South America and are pretty much everywhere else between! An example of a Micro bat is shown below.

Microbats are much more diverse but both groups present amazing examples of the diversity of vertebrates as the only flying mammals!

*Images are from the American Society of Mammalogists website where you can access many other excellent photos of different mammals.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

PhD Comics

Wonder what life is like for graduate students? I have to recommend this website: Recently this comic strip was even expanded into a film (see the website for details). Topics such as the 'Impostor Syndrome,' poorly attended office hours and modes of procrastination are all covered in both film and cartoon format.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The bats attacking hair myth (part 1)

A recent article from the Press Enterprise a Southern California newspaper presented once again the prevalent urban legend that bats attack people's hair.

A young girl in Lake Elsinore encountered a bat that was apparently sick due to an infection with rabies. This unfortunate incident was surely shocking for the unfortunate girl involved and her family. Hopefully the girl is recovering quickly from the event which is likely due to the immediate treatment she received. The remainder of this post does not argue that being bitten by any animal is not a potentially dangerous thing nor does it try to take away from what the poor-child involved experienced. However what it does focus on is the way the media responded. Reading responses to the article it was apparent that people were very concerned about the incident occurring again. Worrying about getting bit by a bat is unfounded as being bitten by a dog is exponentially more likely. This thought lead me to question if a rabid dog bit a 3 year old girl it would also appear in the news paper.

However, the fact remains that the article presented and focused on a reoccurring myth...bats attacking hair. This myth is what I would like to address. It simply is not true that bats 'go for' (i.e. seek out and attack) people's hair just as much as bats are not blind. It is however interesting that this is such a pervasive idea that it is even included in the header of the Press Enterprise article.

A prominent bat biologist Dr. Gary McCracken deals with this myth on the Bat Conservation International web page located here. I rather like Dr. McCracken's discussion of his own work with bats that has involved close contact during which he has not experienced bats 'attacking his hair'. Similarly, my dissertation research has all occurred in a cave that is FULL of bats and I have yet to have a bat become entangled in my medium length hair (i.e. longer than most men's hair). What is most likely is that bats near homes may be foraging at street lights for insects and in their focused hunting fail to 'correct' for larger non-food objects like humans that may be walking between them and their dinner. An additional tidbit (another myth) is the 'painful' nature of the rabies exposure vaccine. This concern is unwarranted as the vaccine is now less painful than vaccines for tetanus. Interesting is the Center for Disease Control (CDC) web site's reference to rabies exposure as a medical 'urgency' but not 'emergency'. Why is this? Generally because the shots are only administered after careful consultation with a doctor because you have a time-window within which to decide what to do.

A well-made site hosted by the CDC for kids to learn more about rabies is hosted here.
Meanwhile, I am interested to learn more about how people reacted to this story and their own experiences relating to the myth that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon: that bats attack people's hair!