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Again and again I ask myself why people are afraid of bats. Adult humans weigh a hundred times more than the largest fruit bats. In fact of the fourteen hundred species of bat, the only bat known to deliberately harm people is the (highly social & altruistic) vampire bat (and, despite all of the hype, such incidents don’t seem to be particularly common).

Bats legitimately do harbor more sorts of viruses than other mammals and many of these viruses have proven to be zoonotic, yet as to whether they spread disease (or even are really the ultimate source of Ebola or Covid 19), the evidence is more exiguous. There are plenty of experts who push back against these claims. My whole article from the other day might have been contributing to anti-bat hysteria (which would truly sadden me since I love bats for their own sake…and for the many valuable roles they play in ecosystems across the entire world).

For what it is worth I don’t think that we fear bats out of some instinctual virus phobia (the way we instinctively recoil from snakes or spiders). The most cursory look at our culture reveals that Americans are not afraid of sugary foods or bad driving, yet these things are stupendous killers, wiping out more lives in a year than bat borne diseases have in all of history. But as Halloween rolls around we will see people shuddering at batfaces and then they trundle their kids out onto the street to collect candy!

Hmmm…

My opinion is that bats are frightening because they are so closely adjacent to multiple things that people do fear. Bats are nocturnal (except for the Azores noctule, which we will exempt from this essay), and our fear of the dark is a primal part of all of us. Bats live in caves, treacherous landscapes of jagged rock, unseen chasms, and deep dark pools. When not at home in caves, bats are up in the night sky, another place where humans have only recently been able to go (and even with all of our technology it is still dangerous and problematic). Perhaps most damning of all, bats are close relatives to us primates and so many of our familiar features are right there in chiropteran physiology, but weirdly distorted in unsettling ways. Bats fall into the uncanny valley: they are sufficiently human to activate some of our social instincts, but then they are patently not human.

This is all speculation. Today’s entire post is an opinion about why people are afraid of bats and fear is hard to properly understand. We have no definitive answers and perhaps such answers are never forthcoming (particularly if fear of bats is based on a grab bag of adjacent fears with a soupcon of germophobia dusted on top)

The bigger point to all of this is that our fear of bats hurts bats..and it hurts us too. As I was writing this little essay, I found example after example of people overreacting to covid/rabies/ebola/SARS and killing bats in exaggerated wanton fashion. I will spare you the grisly details, but suffice to say, it was NOT the bats who came off as terrifying cruel monsters in these stories. People destroy bat habitats and root out bat colonies and kill the poor animals with poison, fire, and brute force, and why? The missing bats leave swarms of dangerous insects, orchards of unpollinated plants, and non-forests of unplanted seeds.

(This is to say nothing of the even greater–yet unintentional–killing of bats caused by habitat loss, climate change, and introduction of terrible invasive diseases which do kill bats such as white nose syndrome, a dreadful fungal scourge).

Batman decided to become BATman because he was afraid of bats. By becoming a bat he mastered that fear and turned it to productive ends (in the movies and comicbooks I mean, if we saw an actual billionaire dressing all dramatically and behaving crazy we would…uh…probably elect him as president). I wish we could learn a lesson from the Dark Knight and look into our hearts and see that bats are not the problem: fear and ignorance are the problems. If we can conquer those things, we can understand & defeat the diseases, fix the world, save ourselves and save the bats and be true heroes, not some made-up comic book nonsense. But I also worry that we are not currently doing well in our battles against fear and ignorance.

Although spring is the season associated with kite flying, the winds of autumn have always struck me as more suited to the activity. Speaking of which, here is a gallery of lovely bat kites from around the web. I am sure I had that black triangle one with crazy eyes when I was a kid! I am sorry for the visual post, but an old friend called and we talked too long. I didn’t want to leave you without any Halloween bats though! Enjoy the struts and ears and almond eyes and we will get back to talking about bats tomorrow!

Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween special feature concerning bats! If you like you can check out last week’s posts concerning bat mascots, Honduran white bats, and the Chinese good luck symbol Wu Fu. Bats are exceedingly wonderful and I love them…but where is the chilling Halloween horror?

Well, bats do have a dark side (at least to humans, when we eat them or intrude too far into their world). They are an infamous vector for zoonotic viruses which jump easily to closely related mammalian species. Although we are most attuned to this year’s worldwide pandemic, covid 19 (which seems not to have come from snakes, but from horseshoe bats) both the SARS and MERS epidemics were caused by bat-borne coronaviruses. Less memorably, bat coronavirues also jumped into the farmyard and caused a serious viral epidemic in China’s pigs. Bats are the natural reservoir for Ebola, Hendra virus, Nipah virus. A single bat can host many different viruses without getting sick. Because they live in close proximity in (sometimes enormous) colonies, viruses readily infect huge numbers of bats. Additionally bats are unlike other small mammals such as rodents and shrews in that they have long lifespans. Most bats can live 20 to 40 years (although, sadly, most do not because, as any World War I aviator could tell you (if any were alive), flying presents certain dangers).

All of this begs the question of why bats are so prone to viruses and yet also so resistant to their effects. Zoologists and Cell biologists are only beginning to unravel this puzzle, but what they have found presents a fascinating picture of the interplay between cellular biology and the physical characteristics of animals.

In the course of metabolizing, reproducing, fighting diseases and so forth, cells are sometimes destroyed in novel ways which release free DNA into places it should not be. This is potentially a big problem and animals cope with it through a mechanism known, sensibly, as DNA-sensing. Alas, this is about as far as I can reasonably describe this process, but you can check out a diagram which explains cytosolic DNA sensing machinery in humans below.

Perhaps this diagram also explains why molecular biologists sometimes find it difficult to characterize what they do in pithy buzzwords

Uhhh…at any rate, among mammals bats have uniquely rigorous physiological demands due to the energy requirements of flight. The high-impact demands of flying lead to substantial cellular damage, but also preclude the solution other mammals adapt (which, as you can see above, is inflammation). If bats were prone to inflammation to the same degree as other placental mammals, they would lose their ability to fly. Instead they have lost various genes and have a more muted response to miscellaneous DNA. This diminished ability to clean up random intracellular DNA makes our fluttery friends more prone to all sorts viruses, yet they have found some other way to endure viruses without over-responding.

As you can probably tell, the cytological processes we are talking about seem to play huge and important roles in cancer, autoimmune disorders, and a host of chronic metabolic disorders like heart disease & diabetes. Not only would it be immensely beneficial to understand bats’ seemingly unique DNA sensing apparatus (and response) in terms of virology and epidemiology, it might bear fruit in many other branches of medical inquiry.

Horseshoe Bat

Alas, this sort of blue skies research (or should we call it dark skies research in honor of our nocturnal subjects?) is exactly the sort of thing which enormous companies are disinterested in and which the Federal government has turned its back upon. Fortunately (?), the Chinese government is extremely interested in finding out more about but-human zoonoses and has been diligently working to figure out more about DNA sensing and concomitant immune response in chiroptera. In fact, if the grotesque bowdlerization of the subject which I have presented in this post does not satisfy your curiosity, you can read a rather fine (albeit technical) Chinese article from 2018 about the subject.

Qianlong marked blue white peach bat flower vase (ca. late 18th century)

The Chinese word for bat, “fu” (蝠) is the same as the Chinese word “fu” (福) for good fortune. Because the words are homonyms (indeed the characters are rather similar as well), Chinese art is absolutely filled with bats which nearly always represent best wishes for good fortune (although Zhang Guo Lao, the oldest and most eccentric of the 8 immortals, was said to have begun his existence as a primordial white bat of chaos).

At any rate, once you know what to look for, you start seeing bats everywhere in Chinese art and ornament. A particularly common motif is the wu fu, which features five bats representative of the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Various famous rebuses pair the wu fu with other geometric good luck symbols, and so we have the rebus of “Wu Fu Peng Shou” (five bats surrounding the symbol for longevity) or the Rebus of Wu Fu He He, which involves yet another complicated homonym (“he” means little round box, but “He He” was a goddess/fairy of nuptial felicity). When you see five bats surrounding a round geometric device (and now that you are looking for it, you WILL see it) you have chanced upon a rebus of Wu Fu He He.

Dear reader, I hope all of these fu symbols heap blessings upon you. May you know vigor, prosperity, old age, the love of virtue, and abundant benisons of all sorts! But I also hope that some of this fu transfers over to real bats. They are close cousins to us grasping, cunning primates, but the world we are making is bringing the chiroptera all sorts of problems! We will talk about that more in subsequent posts, but to finish this post, here is a peach fu vase of surpassing summery loveliness.

Qing Dynasty Porcelain Doucai Vase.

Enough human fripperies, let’s meet some real bats! These adorable little characters are Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba), AKA Caribbean white tent-making bats. Out of 1300 species of bats, this is one of only six varieties with all white fur, and yet that glistening snowy fur apparently serves them quite well. The bats roost under translucent leaves in their native rain forests. The green light shining through the leaves during the day colors the bats a vegetative green which is very hard to see. At other times of less bright light, they look like wasp’s nests, which their predators tend to assiduously avoid.

But wait, did somebody say these are tent-making bats? As anybody who has been in a Boy scout survival course/mishap can attest, it is not as easy as it sounds to make a tent. Are these bats actual building animals? Should I have included them in my building week special feature?

Well, the bats are not exactly weaverbirds, but they do go to great lengths to select perfect giant leaves of heliconia plants. Then working together a team of bats bite out the sideribs of the designated leaf and shape it in such a fashion that the leaf bends into a perfect tent. It sounds pretty snug & sophisticated to me (but maybe I am still aggrieved over that bad lean-to from scout camp).

“Decadent human, you would not last the night in Honduras!”

Living almost exclusively on a single species of fig (Ficus colubrinae), the Honduran white bat is one of the two smallest fruit eating bats in the world. Speaking of size, the bats have a body length of 5 centimeters (2 inches) at most. Little is known about their habits or reproductive behaviors. Females an bear a single offspring twice a year. Despite their tiny size, they are capable of living for more than 20 years.

Hahaha! This little bat is eating a little fig!

As you have probably noticed, the Honduran white bat is not exclusively white, its ears and its leaf shaped nose (it is one of the family of leaf nosed bats) are bright yellow. Interestingly, the yellowness of a bat’s appendages seems to be a sort of sexual selection trait, like the antlers of the Irish elk. The more yellow the nose, the more desirable the male bat is to discerning little lady bats!

“Oh, hiiiii ladies. I didn’t see you there…”

This yellow pigment is not interesting only to amorous bats. The yellow coloration comes from lutein, an esterified protein which the bat synthesizes from carotenoids in its figgy diet. This molecular biology is of great interest to biomedical researchers since lutein plays an important role in retinal health in mammals such as primates (like, say, uh, humans, for example). Our inability to esterify luteins in our eyes seems to contribute to vision loss and macular degeneration as we age. Perhaps we could learn some things from the Honduran white bats (in addition to tent-making, I mean).

For our special annual Halloween theme, Ferrebeekeeper usually features a subject which is scary or disquieting. However, since this year has featured an unprecedented amount of scary and disquieting content on its own, we are instead featuring a heartwarming subject which many people tragically misidentify as scary. I am talking about bats, one of my very favorite mammalian orders (and that is really saying something, considering that mammals are a class which includes all-time great orders like Proboscidea and Cetacea).

In subsequent posts we will talk about what bats are (they are near relatives of primates but their close taxonomical relationship to humans is obscured by their alien appearance and by the fact that cladists keep changing their understanding of the precise way we share ancestors). We will also talk about why people are scared of bats and about why bats are wonderful and useful. Additionally, due to this year’s tragic events we will highlight how bats need to be be treated with respect and carefully safeguarded (unless you would like a future with even MORE coronaviruses).

For right now though, let’s start out with a gallery of bat mascots (batscots?). Unfortunately, the fact that bats are a taboo animal to Christians means that, in the west, Batman and Bacardi are practically the only entities that chose the bat as a logo (well, them and the Louisville Bats, a minor league baseball team with a penchant for wordplay).

Buddy the Bat!

However there are a whole flock of lesser known (or completely unknown) bat mascots just waiting in the wings 9as it were). Check them out below

Good heavens! now that I look at all the wings and cartoon fangs, I wonder if I should have written about chiropteran biology before venturing out into popular culture. But whatever. There are some pretty endearing bats in all of that (particularly considering our culture’s unhappy relationship with bats as symbols). We will take the bat mascot as a starting point and explore the wonderful world of these amazing and precious animals in subsequent posts. Even if we can’t flit around the neighborhood we will make this a good Halloween… and hopefully we can save some bats too.

It is already the middle of October! This year has ground by with such agonizing slowness that it is easy to overlook how swiftly it has flown by! (?) Uhh…anyway, regular readers know that Ferrebeekeeper always presents a special theme week for Halloween, and, plague or no, this year will not be an exception. Past topics have included the Monster Echidna, Flowers of the Underworld, Flaying, the Undead, and Evil Clowns! Place your bets on what the special theme for 2020 will be!

Before we get there, though, I though lets call back to one of my favorite posts from years back by featuring a beautiful ceiling in Venice. Nobody can travel to Venice this year (ahem, not that I was exactly a regular ’round the ol’ Lagoon before all of this happened) so we might as well go there by means of the magical time/space dispensation which art gives to us.

Francesco de Rossi, ca. 1540, Fresco

Here is the ceiling of The Chamber of Apollo in the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. It was painted by the somewhat strange Florentine mannerist, Francesco de Rossi (AKA Francesco Salviati). Completed around 1540 AD, the work showcases Apollo, god of art and light. The center of the composition portrays Apollo riding the chariot of the sun while the constellations of the horoscope circle around him. The four main panels show special episodes from Apollo’s canon of myths. Two of the four concern Apollo’s dispute with Marsyas!

Although the sad end of the contest definitely appears on the ceiling, my favorite panel is the panel (above) which features Apollo listening to Marsyas play. As Marsyas plays his aulos he prances with wild proud abandon! Apollo’s lyre sits at his feet as the god angrily listens to the concert. Not content to let Marsyas play unmolested, Apollo points an angry finger of foreshadowing at Marsyas’ torso.

My own artwork of Apollo and Marsyas portrays the contest itself as opposed to the outcome (although de Rossi painted Marsyas bound to a tree in the next pendant to the right). Like de Rossi’s artwork, my thoughts concerning Apollo and what he means keep going in a circle. I wish somebody from the Renaissance would post some comments so we could get to the bottom of this bloody myth, but I suppose time does not work quite that way. We already have the opinion of long gone artists though, however they are not expressed as little snippets of digital prose, but as magnificent paintings. we will just have to keep on staring at them!

Behold the Crown of Liège, an ancient reliquary crown which was acquired by the Louvre in…1947? Well, despite the fact that the French State took a while to get a hold of it, the crown was manufactured back at the end of the 13th century. It consists of eight plaques each of which is ornamented with fleurons set off with precious stones and stamped oak leaves. The plaques are separated from each other by metal angels.

Each plaque also contains a tiny hollow cavity behind the central jewel. This crown was not made for a human head, but was constructed to house the contents of these cavities.

King Louis IX, was one of the most esteemed rulers of the Middle Ages: he was a legal reformer who banned trial by ordeal and introduced the concept of “presumption of innocence” to jurisprudence. Famed throughout Europe for his heartfelt Christianity, Louis acquired what he believed to be Christ’s Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the true cross from Emperor Baldwin II of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (Baldwin’s story involves the bizarre and misdirected 4th Crusade–a story for another day). At any rate, King Louis IX gave away some of the fragments of his dearly bought relics, and this crown houses them.

For a time it was believed that the crown was Parisian in origin, but art historians and jewelsmiths now believe that it was made in the Meuse Valley, which runs through Belgium, Amsterdam, and Germany.

This year Ferrebeekeeper missed the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival…but that doesn’t mean we have forgotten about it. Additionally, in a garden-themed post a few weeks back, we promised a few more late-season pictures from the garden. If only there were some way to combine these two objectives…

Allow me to present the last flower to bloom in 2020…the moonflower (Ipomoea alba). There are still plenty of flowers in the garden and tough blossoms like roses and violas will probably continue blooming until December, but the moonflower bloomed for the first time in October (if that makes sense). There are some reasons this lovely nocturnal vine is only just beginning to bloom now. Not only did I start the seeds late in the year (long after the last spring frost), but it is a tropical flower from equatorial Central and South America and needs a 12 hour day to bloom. The long days of summer get it all confused.

True to its name the moonflower blooms at night (a real plus for Ferrebeekeeper, since I tend to be a night bloomer as well). The gorgeous blossoms form big white perfect circles, like the moon. They wilt away at dawn. Alas, in Puerto Rico or Colombia, the moonflower may be a perennial, but here in Brooklyn, it is definitely an annual. I may only get a handful of flowers, but it was definitely worth the wait! Happy belated Mid-Autumn moon festival! However, this year we get two full moons in October so prepare for further moon-themed posts for the Halloween blue moon!

Gothic rib vault ceiling of the Saint-Séverin church in Paris

As we move closer to Halloween, it is time to present some more beautiful Gothic imagery…but there is a problem. Ferrebeekeeper has already featured posts about Gothic clocks, gates, gazebos, houses, gingerbread houses, beds, mirrors, Christmas trees, literature, fonts and, uh Goths. What is left?

The great Gothic churches and cathedrals of yesteryear were built in an age before elaborate & inexpensive steel work. While it is easy to understand how stone columns, tall stone arches, and flying buttresses could be used to give height to the great cathedrals of the middle ages, what is harder to grasp is how these huge halls had ceilings! Timber has certain limits of size & strength. Stone, though strong, is heavy! How did the great architects of medieval Europe surmount these limitations so that they didn’t have to pray in the rain?

Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen (15th century)

The answer is that they designed elaborate and beautiful rib vaults. These structures utilized crossed or diagonal arched “ribs” of stone as a supporting framework for thin stone ceiling panels. The results are as stunning as the outside of the cathedrals–but in a more functional way.

Lierne vaulting of Gloucester Cathedral (1331)
Canterbury Cathedral vaulted nave (late 14th century)
Exeter Cathedral has the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England
Vault at Bern Cathedral (mid 15th century)
Decorated vaulted ceiling in Salisbury Cathedral showing three different patterns and design.

To show what I mean, here is a gallery of famous Gothic vaults. Some are plain whereas others are complex. A few are even ornamented (although the ceilings seem to have been left less encrusted with statues, paintings, and mosaics than other parts of the cathedral because they were a weak point and they needed to be functional. The beauty of these structures is thus more like the beauty of diatoms and less like the beauty of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling…although…come to think of it…

The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the vault in relation to the famous wall murals

There are whole architectural treatises detailing the fans, crosses, liernes, groins, stars, and domes of such cathedrals (and all of the ways they can be combined) but for now let’s just savor the beauty and artistry of stone made into sky.

Bath Abbey

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