From the monthly archives:

November 2008

When a bat is your closest relative

by Maraya on November 29, 2008

Hawaiian Hoary BatPhoto courtesy the Honolulu Zoo.

Hawaiian Hoary Bat

In Hawaii recently, on a trail on the eastern edge of the Big Island, I disturbed a couple of Hawaiian Hoary Bats. They flapped out from their hiding place in a crevice in the lava rock and lurched off through the air. I was excited to see those bats, especially since I had read that day that they’re endangered. My friends were unimpressed until I told them that bats are the only mammals native to Hawaii.

People find it surprising that bats could be the single mammal that lived on an island before people arrived.

Bats? Really? they say, as if they had expected something more glamorous to have earned the distinction of first and only. Bats!

Then the logic of it dawns. If you’re going to live on a chunk of rock in the middle of the ocean, you have to get there somehow. And bats are the only mammals that can fly.

The same is true on islands all over the world.  Bats are also the only native terrestrial mammals in Puerto Rico, the Seychelles, the Mascarene Islands, Guam, the Maldives, Fiji, the Cayman Islands, New Zealand and others.

What a shock it is to us, with our mythology of magnificent flying beasts, that the real flying beast should be so small and so awkward and so ugly. It goes against all that we believe about our place in the world as mammals. Sleeping in caves and holes, emerging at dusk to eat insects, bats occupy the margins of life on an island. They look like snaggletoothed accidents of nature, with ragged ears, squinty eyes, bumpy smashed-in noses of various shapes and degrees of puggyness, veiny wings adorned with sinister hooks, and really awful teeth. A bat’s flight may be even worse than its face.  A bat biologist would vehemently disagree, saying that bats fly expertly for their purposes, thank you very much.  But watch a bat in flight sometime: it looks as if dodging ghosts, or it keeps changing its mind every half second about where it’s headed, or as if it’s never done this before.

And yet, as global explorers, these little goblins are our predecessors. Bats, alone among mammals, colonized islands ruled by hundreds of species of birds. When people first arrived in Hawaii, their closest relative there, the animal with whom they shared the most genes, was a bat.

I think of bats as tragic heroes. Their ascent into the air has diminished rather than glorified them. They will never soar like Pegasus or the griffin.  They are more like the determined Little Mermaid in the fairy tale who gave up everything to stagger painfully on land. Bats have sacrificed running feet and the solid earth for the sake of flying like broken birds. How can we not love them for that?