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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.

Thank you to everyone who played our celebratory contest! I hope you had fun looking at the images and thinking about what they are or where they are.  We will quickly go through the correct answers–or at least we will list my best understanding of what is correct.  At the end I will announce the proud winner of these exquisite mint-condition Zoomorphs toys and we can start to fumble towards the logistics of getting you your toys, hooftales…er I mean “mysterious contest winner”.

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Wherever possible, I have linked back to original articles and posts, so, if you have a moment and are curious about these strange places and things, why not click all of the links and continue voyaging through vast realms of life, time, and art!

OK, here we go with the answers:

THINGS:

1.

1

A Song Dynasty (or ‘Sung” Dynasty…if that is how you Anglicize ) ewer not wholly unlike this one or these later Mongol ewers.

2.

two

A parasitoid fairy wasp (Mymaridae family) upon a human hand

3.

3

A Melo Pearl, the world’s rarest and most expensive type of pearl!

4.

4

Whoah! It’s an ancient Visigoth votive crown from the fabled treasure of Guarrazar!

5.

5

A Chiton, the armored mollusk

6.

6

Aww! It’s an adorable school of tiny little glass catfish.

7.

7

Roses, tulips, irises and other flowers in a wicker basket, with fruit and insects on a ledge (Balthasar van der Ast, ca 1614-1619) oil on panel.  (Here is a Ferrebeekeeper post about Van der Ast).

8.

8

The Cap of Monomach, a treasure of the early tsars.  I still think Putin wears it sometimes. Hell, he’s probably wearing it right now!

9.

9

It is the brain of an Etruscan shrew, arguably the smallest mammal.  The arrows point to the trigeminal nerve (black arrows) and optic nerve (blue arrows).

10.

10

Hahahaha! These are Polish chicken chicks. Look at that expression!  The poor li’l guy does look a bit down.

11.

11

A lituus, a mysterious Roman divination device.

12.

12

The underworld deity Xolotl, the scrofulous salamander deity of Aztec mythology’s weird death realm.

13.

13

The “Borghese Vase” a colossal Ancient Roman Urn which was one of the treasures of the Garden of Sallust

PLACES:

1.

ONE

The Faroe Islands (Photo by Tom Glancz)

2.2

A Masai giraffe walking by Lake Manyara Tanzania

3.

Three

Standard Poodles in the Ohio Valley

4.

four

 

5.

five

A welwitschia plant in the Namib Desert

6.

Six

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an, Shaanxi.  I need to write a post about this one in the future!

7.

seven

Ovid Among the Scythians (Eugène Delacroix, 1862) Oil on Canvas

I find it strange that this fantasy piece about Scythians (and poets) was painted during the American Civil War.

8.eight

Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania

9.nine

The world’s largest potash fertilizer plant at Lop Nur, China

10.

ten

The Planet Venus, sans clouds. Sigh…someday

11.

eleven

The Armenian cemetery in Julfa, Azerbaijan…desecrated and bulldozed in the 1990s

12.

dozen

A colossal snake swimming in the Trans-Saharan Seaway of Mali during the Eocene

13.

t

The Site of Eridu, humankind’s first known city.

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I can’t believe how well our contestants did! I am not sure I could have identified any of these…and I have written about most of them!  There were a few humorous stray answers, but even the answers which weren’t a hundred percent right were still clever and well thought out.  Our Ferrebeekeeper mental Olympics thus ends with the following champions:

Gold: hooftales

Silver: Vicki

Bronze: eekee

Everyone is a winner (although Hooftales gets the zoomorphs and the national anthem of the hooftales homeland is currently playing as we wipe away proud tears).  I enjoyed putting this together and revisiting these concepts! Should we do another one at some point? Should the images be harder or easier or what?  Talk to me below (Hooftales, we will figure out how to get you your prize) and thanks again for playing and, above all, for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Today we feature something completely new for Ferrebeekeeper–a contest!  This challenge will test your acumen, breadth of knowledge, and grasp of cultural and biological material.  And this is not just for bragging rights (although those are certainly to be had); there is an actual prize–a good one.  Hopefully this contest will also simulate the joys of travel and the delight of discovery in this sad & locked-down era.

Here are the rules:  below are 13 images of things and 13 images of places.  Whoever is first to identify these images most correctly will win the prize–an original, unopened mint-condition box of “Safarimorphs” mix-and-match animal toys which I made when I was a foolish young person who believed that success could be had in America without selling out to a huge monopolistic corporation an entrepreneur.   Zoomorphs the company died a hideous death…but not because the toys lacked quality.  Even to this day, strangers still hunt me down on the internet trying to find if there are any toys left.  [Sean Connery voice] This is one of the very last boxes in existence so think carefully about your answers!

zoomorphs-safarimorphs_1_8884ec1b83b19a1d35c2dabe0b4640cc

Unfortunately there are some problems with web contests, like Google’s search-by-means-of-image feature (which is for losers, but will probably work).  Worst of all, I can’t imagine where to put the answers (my email sometimes plays havoc with unknown incoming messages) so we are going to have to put them in the comments below.  If you don’t see your answers at first, don’t worry, I will approve them in the order they come in (assuming you don’t cuss TOO much), but it does mean that other contestants can see your answers too, so consider carefully before posting!  Also, there could be multiple right answers–a featureless arid plain could be “The silk road”, or “Kazakhstan” or “a desert” or “The Northern Hemisphere” all of which are right, but some of which are more right. Our highly qualified and morally unimpeachable judges will determine the MOST right answers by means of secret deliberation to which there is no appeal.

The contest ends next Tuesday when I will announce the winner and give my own answers.  The number refers to the image immediately below it. Good luck and thank you for playing (and thank you even more for reading).  Speaking of reading, there are some hints for a lot of these in Ferrebeekeeper…somewhere in those 2000 posts before last week, so maybe you should browse the archives. OK! Here are the images:

THINGS:

1.

1

2.

two

3.

3

4.

4

5.

5

6.

6

7.

7

8.

8

9.

9

10.

10

11.

11

12.

12

13.

13

PLACES:

1.

ONE

2.2

3.

Three

4.

four

5.

five

6.

Six

7.

seven

8.eight

9.nine

10.

ten

11.

eleven

12.

dozen

13.

t

 

You probably know them all already…but at least the images look quite strange and impressive with this white box gallery format.  Post you answers below and good luck! Let me know if you have questions and thank you so much for everything.

shrimp 2000

Welcome dear readers! Happy 2000th post!  The number 2000 is special because…uh…[checks notes] it is the largest number you can express with Roman numerals using only two unmodified characters: “MM”.  Wow! How about that?

Really though, all kidding aside, the number 2000 is special here solely because of you.  Without readers, what would be the point of writing?  Even the most lustrous pearl is unremarkable if it is never in the light!

I was going to write a thoughtful post about the future of Ferrebeekeeper–which would really turn out to be an uplifting post about how we can work together to regain some optimistic energy and frame some lofty goals for a brighter future (lately such ideas have been thin on the ground in the ecological, political, and economic dystopia we have crafted for ourselves).  Unfortunately (yet perhaps appropriately) my internet connection failed. Comcast came and sort of fixed the problem and told me that using the ancient modem which they rent to me only allows me to access a tiny fraction of the bandwidth they charge $100.00 a month for!  As soon as I am done with this post I need to write a complaint to my congressperson about the fact that I live in one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the Western hemisphere and yet there is only one (bad) “choice” for broadband.

Anyway, because this post is already late, I am going to save the larger philosophical musings about the future for, um, the future (but the immediate future while we are still celebrating this milestone). To really celebrate the day, here is a gallery of adorable baby animal pictures lovingly hand-stolen from around the internet.  That baby otter is especially cute!

 

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Now in the real world maybe I wouldn’t trust that Pallas’ cat kitten with any of these other babies, but fortunately here they are safely held apart by digital means.

Now obviously this is a bit of a softball post so that we can all finish up and go into the garden and enjoy the beautiful  June evening while the fireflies are out. Yet in a larger sense this combination of complaining about monopolistic technological hegemony, lauding the beauty of our fellow earth creatures, and then escaping into a paradisaical starlit garden is significant!

What is the significance you might ask? Well I am afraid you will have to keep reading to get the answer! But you should stick around regardless: I promised contests, pageantry, and heartfelt musings to mark this milestone and we are going to have all of those things!  Before we get to them though I really want to emphasize how much your attention and comments have meant to me.  In our world of millionaires, nanoseconds, and terabytes, a prosaic number like 2000 doesn’t seem like a lot, but writing 2000 miniature (or not-so-miniature) essays makes one appreciate that number afresh.  I never would have written so much without you.

Thank you.

And, of course, I will see you back here tomorrow!

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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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