Tag Archives: science communication

Five awesome bat videos for National Bat Week!

Bat week 2014 has just begun and already some amazing bat videos are being shared around the web. Here are five of my favorites that I have come across so far.

1.  Batman and Superman join forces to help save the bats

Hollywood is finally joining the crusade to save our bats! Stars of the new Batman and Superman movies,  Zack Snyder, Ben Affleck and Amy Adams, tell us why it’s important to save bats. Check out the Save the Bats Campaign.

2. Bats: Wonders of the Night

If you collected every species of mammal on earth, one in four would be a bat. Isn’t that amazing? The team at It’s Ok to Be Smart explores the world of bats and visits the largest bat colony in the world —Bracken Cave in Texas.

3. What is happening to North America’s bats? Learn about White-nose Syndrome.

White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a disease caused by a fungus, Geomyces destructans, that is threatening cave-hibernating bat populations in North America. Learn more about white-nose syndrome and the efforts made by U.S. National Park Service respond to this deadly disease.

4. Are You Afraid Of Bats? Meet a ghost bat!

Bats are often portrayed as villainous, dark natured animals but in reality even the strangest of the bat family have their place. Meet Patrick, an Australian ghost bat who definitely does not live up to his scary name.

5. Into the Bat Caves of Kenya: Pt. I

This video made me so jealous! Join Emily Graslie from Chicago’s Field Museum as she  accompanies bat researcher Bruce Patterson on a field expedition into the bat caves of Kenya. Just awesome.

Have you seen any other awesome bat videos this week? Let me know so I can share them!

Bat myths – where did they come from and what can we do about it?

There are many cultural beliefs associated with bats. While not disliked or mistrusted by all, bats – to their detriment – have been the subject of myths and legends in many cultures for hundreds or indeed, thousands of years.

bat hair myth

Their “unusual” physical form

Myths and legends frequently associate bats with darkness and evil. This negative attitude towards bats is thought to stem from the difficulty many people find in comprehending their “unusual” physical form. Seen as ambiguous creatures, both flying like birds and also possessing hair and teeth like mammals, bats are an animal people struggle to identify with as their appearance is so different from more “normal” animals. This, along with their nocturnal lifestyle and unusual roosting habits, has led to many of the myths associating bats with evil or deceit.

Lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros) bats roosting - Photo: Jessicajil
Lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros) bats roosting – Photo: Jessicajil

Stretching the truth for a good story

Myths tell us bats are scary and dangerous. This theme is found in beliefs such as; bats will drink your blood, get stuck in your hair, will deliberately attack you or will put you at great danger from disease. While several of these myths may be based on fact, for the most part these myths are false or grossly exaggerate the truth.

Vampire bats use heat sensors to identify a spot with blood vessels near the surface of the skin to bite. They then create a small incision with their teeth and lap up blood from the wound, just like a kitten!
Vampire bats use heat sensors to identify a spot with blood vessels near the surface of the skin to bite. They then create a small incision with their teeth and lap up blood from the wound, just like a kitten!

For example there are only three species of vampire bat (out of 1300+ bat species found worldwide) that do drink blood, and all three are only found in Central and South America.

While bats will not get stuck in your hair or deliberately attack you, they are known to carry diseases that can infect humans, however this could be said of many species including the cats and dogs we share our homes with. Many of these myths have been perpetuated through literature, film and old wives tales. Works from famous writers such as William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker (author of “Dracula”) have contributed to such myths and legends that perpetuate fear in people, as they associate bats with graveyards, vampires, death and the devil.

Dracula movie poster - 1931
Dracula movie poster – 1931
Bats the American science fiction monster horror thriller film - 1999
Bats the American science fiction monster horror thriller film – 1999

Alongside the association of bats with nightmarish themes in literature, bats feature heavily – again with negatively – in everyday phrases across western societies. Phrases such as “blind as a bat”, “bat out of hell” or the use of the term “batty” (meaning silly or even mad) have also contributed to the way people perceive bats. It is this combination of myths, folklore, literature and localized sayings that has most likely led to bats being named as one of the least liked animals, even though most people have never interacted with a bat before.

Myths spread from ancient cultures

Many of these bat myths and legends common in the western world have origins from Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian cultures. In ancient Rome, bats were nailed to the door of the house as a protection from witches and diseases. In fact it was believed at that time, that their silent presence announced the arrival of an accident or a great storm. 

Interestingly these myths have spread to most western societies even though many countries, particularly those in the southern hemisphere, do not necessarily have the same types of bats as the regions where the myths orginated.  Within Chiroptera, the mammal order that encompasses all bats, two distinct groups are found. The first are the small, insect eating bats called Microchiroptera (micro-bats). Bats within this group include those that roost in caves or in tree cavities and are found worldwide.

Giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus - Photo: Gregg Yan.
Giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus – Photo: Gregg Yan.

The second is Megachiroptera (mega-bats), a group that includes all the large bats, including flying-foxes, which predominately eat fruit and nectar. This group is mainly confined to south-east Asia and the Pacific, including India and Australia. The absence of mega-bats from areas in the northern hemisphere from where many of the myths and prejudices were founded indicates that these legends were originally based on misunderstandings of micro-bat species. In many countries like Australia, the use of the generic term “bat” has allowed the extension of these cultural prejudices to encompass mega-bats (including flying-foxes) despite the many physical and ecological differences between them and their smaller counterparts.

So how do we change this negative view towards bats?

Unfortunately conservationists and bat scientists alike face an uphill battle in trying to educate communities about the real nature of these misunderstood creatures. The media is currently our biggest obstacle but ironically it could also be our biggest ally if we could overcome its tendency for sensationalism.

DevilBat newspaperJournalists commonly use links to cultural legends and existing belief systems to make their stories resonate with their audiences. These connections have tremendous power through their symbolism, implied meaning and widespread recognition – that is why sensationalist headlines like “This Terrifying Little Creature Is Actually Much Deadlier Than You Probably Thought” recently published by Upworthy.com attracts so many readers. This combination of culturally engrained beliefs with real-world wildlife problems, such as the spread of zoonotic disease, within media reporting makes it harder not only for the public to separate the two but also for bat advocates to convince journalists to report on these issues without reference these cultural prejudices.

It is up to bat advocates to work with journalists to show them how bat stories can be just as fascinating to their audiences without references to common myths and legends. The real world of bats is much more captivating than any old wives tale could ever be. We just need to show them.

Common tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) - Costa Rica
Common tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) – Costa Rica

Why do Bats Transmit so many Diseases like Ebola?

The connection between bats and diseases that can harm humans has been a sensitive topic for most bat scientists and conservationists for decades. As a scientist it is not an easy discussion to have with the public, as we still know very little about the relationship between these zoonotic diseases and bats. This, coupled with the public’s inherent mistrust of bats due to engrained cultural beliefs and myths that bats are evil or dirty, makes rational discussion of this important topic all the more difficult.

This is why I applaud Minute Earth’s efforts with their new video exploring the connection between bats and disease. When they came to me a month or so ago for advice, like most bat scientists, I was at first skeptical and defensive. Many scientists in the past, including myself, have had to deal with the trap most media fall into – sensationalism and fear mongering . To finally see science communication on this topic that is not inflammatory yet does not shy away from the issues is refreshing.

Thank you Minute Earth for showing the scientific community that communication about this sensitive topic can be done in a fun and approachable way.