Stories tagged bats

How's this for a mash-up of Halloween and science? A newly created artificial bat cave in Tennessee is helping reduce the spread of disease that's killed 5 million bats. It even has air conditioning!!!

The headline pretty much sums it up. A species of bat in Borneo roosts inside carnivorous pitcher plants, which "eat" the bat's feces. Check it out.

This was previously covered in The Lion King's opening "Circle of Life" montage.


I am not bad! Only confused and hungry!: Think of Angel in season 3 of Buffy! I'm like that!
I am not bad! Only confused and hungry!: Think of Angel in season 3 of Buffy! I'm like that!Courtesy Desmodus
Holy moly!

Vampire bats have been attacking people living in the Amazon rainforest in Peru! And it turns out that the bats have rabies! 500 people have been attacked, and four people have died (all of the fatalities, tragically, have been kids).

The articles I found on the attacks don't make a link between the attacks and the rabies—it seems that some South American populations of vampire bats just have a higher incidence of rabies. (Bats, in general, have a relatively low incidence of the disease; only 0.5% of bats carry the virus.)

It's unusual for vampire bats to attack humans. Typically they will feed on the blood of sleeping animals, but if their prey species become scarce, they will sometimes turn to humans for food. According to the BBC article on the attacks, some experts believe that destruction of the bats habitat, and the ensuing scarcity of prey, have caused them to attack humans, or that the attacks are the result changing temperatures in the Peruvian Amazon in recent years.

In any case, I'd get prepared if I were y'all. Holy water, crosses, wooden stakes, and tennis rackets.


Pshhhheeeewww!: Science everywhere!
Pshhhheeeewww!: Science everywhere!Courtesy SiamEye
I don’t even know where to begin today! All I can think is “OMG!!!!” And each exclamation point I think is like a blood vessel bursting in my brain!

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So why is this a day of excitement, instead of quiet family tragedy? Because the biggest explosions today aren’t happening in little tubes in my head, they’re happening in the world of science! (I don’t consider the physiology of my head to be science. More like magic. Or trial and error.) I just don’t know what to do with all this science.

See, unlike your average Friday Extravaganza, a Thursday Explosion has no focus; it’s just kind of all over the place. A mess! There are all these stories, but we really have to stretch to fit them into a single post… so the loose theme of this explosion will, fittingly, be “flying things.” Am I not helping? Just wait, you’ll see.

Normal mouse becomes flying mouse, doesn’t care!
Check it out: a baby mouse was put into a little chamber and subjected to an intense magnetic field. What happened? All the water in the mouse’s body was levitated. And because those squishy little mice are so full of water, the mouse itself levitated along with the water.

Unfortunately, the first mouse wasn’t quite ready for life as an aviator, and upon levitation, he began to, as scientists say, “flip his Schmidt.” Lil’ mousey started kicking, and spinning, and with minimal resistance in the chamber, he started spinning faster and faster. He was removed from the machine, and put wherever little mice go to relax. Subsequent floating mice were given a mild sedative before flying (pretty much the same thing my mom does), and they seemed cool with it. Now and again the floating mice would drift out of the region of the magnetic field, but upon falling back into it they’d float right back up. After remaining in a levitating state for several hours, the mice got used to it, and even ate and drank normally. Afterwards, the mice had no apparent ill-effects from the experiment (rats had previously been made to live in non-levitating magnetic fields for 10 weeks, and they seemed fine too.)

Aside from the excitement normally associated with floating mice, the experiment is promising in that it may be a useful way to study the effects of long term exposure to microgravity without bringing a subject to space.
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Great tits are dangerous if you’re a sleepy bat!

It’s true! Forget everything you thought you knew about great tits and get schooled once again, my friends, for great tits are killers!

I’m not talking about the senseless murder of bugs, either—everybody already knew that great tits are primarily insectivores. A population of great tits in Hungary have been observed hunting bats!

As fun as it is to keep writing “great tits” with no explanation, I suppose we should be clear that great tits are a type of song bird common in Europe and Asia. Little, bat-hunting songbirds.

Meat eating great tits had been reported in other parts of Europe, but it was thought that those individuals had only consumed already-dead animals. The tits of Hungary were actually observed flying into bat caves, where they would capture tiny, hibernating pipistrelle bats and drag them out of the cave to devour them alive. It even appeared that the birds had learned to listen for the bats’ disturbed squeaking (or, as I like to think of it, their horrified shrieking)—when the same noise (which is too high for humans to hear) was played back for captured tits, 80% of the birds became interested (read: bloodthirsty) at the sound.

If it really is just the Hungarian population that engages in this behavior, the situation also brings up the possibility of culture in the birds. That is, if this isn’t some sort of innate behavior, but something learned and taught, and passed through generations that way, it could be considered culture. Amazing! Great tits are cultured!

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Flying velociraptors!

Well, not so much flying as falling. But falling with purpose. (What was it Buzz Lightyear said? Oh yeah, “I’m so lonely all the time.”)

We all know about how awesome raptors are. I think it’s part of kindergarten curriculum now, just between how not to accidentally poison yourself, and why you shouldn’t swear and hit. Well, I remember reading a news item a couple years ago about how some paleontologists were thinking that raptors’ famous giant toe claws may not have been for disemboweling their prey. Instead, the scientists proposed, raptors would lodge the massive claw into the skin of their prey with a kick, and then use it to hang on to the unlucky animal while the raptor went bite-crazy. The researchers had made a simulation of a raptor claw, and found that it could easily puncture thick skin and flesh, it didn’t seem to be sharp enough to actually cut the skin. (Cutting is necessary for a good disemboweling.) One might argue over the strength and sharpness of raptor claws, considering that the fossilized bone claws we see in museums would have been covered with a tough, horny substance, which did not fossilize, but whatever—the new scenario was still pretty cool.

Now, the same group of paleontologists is proposing that raptor claws were also well suited to tree climbing. Raptors could have waited on overhanging limbs, and then pounced on their prey from above. Pretty neat! The researchers point out that the microraptor a tiny relative of the velociraptor, had feathered limbs to help it glide down from high places, so it’s not a stretch to think that its cousins were comfortable in trees too. “The leg and tail musculature,” one scientist says, “show that these animals are adapted for climbing rather than running.”

I’ll take his word for it, I guess, but I do have some questions on that point. There’s a dromaeosaur (it looks a lot like a velociraptor) skeleton here at the museum, and I seem to remember that its tale was supposed to be very stiff—it has these cartilage rods running the length of the tail to keep it rigid. I feel like a long, stiff tail would be a pain in the butt up in a tree. It’s not the sort of thing arboreal animals invest in these days. Also, I wonder what sort of vegetation was around in the areas raptors lived. Plenty of big trees with good, raptor-supporting limbs? (I’m not implying that there weren’t, I’m just curious.)

The researchers do acknowledge that tree climbing wouldn’t have been every raptor’s cup of tea, however. Species like the utahraptor, weighing many hundreds of pounds, and measuring about 20 feet in length would have been “hard put to find a tree they could climb.”

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Pretty neat stuff, huh? Explosions usually are. But you see now why I couldn’t wait for three posts to get it all out there.

...and, let's face it, who doesn't? You, too, can master the art of echolocation.


It was horrible: just horrible.
It was horrible: just horrible.Courtesy Steveie-B
A pipistrelle bat, local to Aberdeen, Scotland, was shocked and disgusted to find the naked leg of a 19-year-old woman thrust into the soft contours of its new cave.

Having just moved from the grim crawlspaces of an Aberdeen flat, in favor of a cozier, denim living space, the two-inch flying mammal assumed that it was set for life.

Shortly after settling in for the day, however, the pipistrelle was bludgeoned into consciousness by the colossal, pale shank of a Scottish receptionist. The invading limb was squeezed through the cloth tube like a kielbasa in the neck of a beer bottle, leaving the bat little choice but to hunker down and wait for the flesh-storm to subside.

Unfortunately, the young receptionist remained maddeningly unaware of the presence of the sorely abused batty for the better part of an hour. It was not until her mother was driving her to work that the nerve signals from her monstrous appendage apparently completed the arduous journey to her brain. The screaming and thrashing that followed was no doubt tortuous for the small creature’s delicate bones and hyper-sensitive ears. One can only imagine how painful the experience must have been to the tiny merkel cells lining the bat’s wings, as the delicate, single-haired structures were meant only to sense subtle changes in air flow, not to endure the scraping of Scotch legs.

The bat was shortly evicted from its new home, and placed into a holding cell, where it was given the humiliating nickname “Rat-bat.”

“My name,” the pipistrelle was quoted, “is Henry Fitzroy-Lennox, and I want to go home.”

Lamentably healthy, the bad wondered how things might have been different, had it been a carrier of rabies. The virus, present in the nerves and saliva, could have been easily passed to the receptionist through one quick bite (or, less likely, but intriguingly possible, via an aerosol through the mucus membranes). The infection would have necessitated an injection of immunoglobulin near the infection site, and another intramuscularly away from the site, followed by several shot of vaccine.

If the receptionist had neglected to seek proper treatment for the Henry’s well-deserved revenge, she could have looked forward to the rapid passage of the virus along her nerves, through her central nervous system, to the ultimate destination of her brain, where it soon would have caused encephalitis—painful and deadly inflammation of the brain.

There’s some small chance that a drug induced coma could have saved her brain from further damage at this point, but very likely the damage would have been done, and irreversible symptoms would soon begin to appear. Initially symptoms would be flu-like, but before long the woman would have suffered from insomnia, confusion, agitation, partial paralysis, paranoia, terror, and severe hallucinations. The receptionist would have become distinctly drippy, as her body would produce excessive amounts of tears and saliva. Her slight paralysis would have prevented her from swallowing, causing the characteristic “foaming at the mouth” of rabies. She may have developed hydrophobia—a fear of water—because the excess fluid in her mouth and inability to swallow could bring her to a panic when presented with liquids to drink (indeed, “hydrophobia” was once synonymous with rabies, so characteristic was the symptom).

Approximately one week after developing symptoms, the receptionist would have died.

So, all in all, it seems that she really dodged a bullet after throwing herself in front of a gun.

Mr. Fitzroy-Lennox was released into the wild (of Aberdeen) at the end of the lucky and inconsiderate woman’s shift. He will never again put himself into a position where a receptionist could abuse him so awfully.

More from Science Buzz on bats and rabies.

More on receptionists.

More on Aberdeen.

Scientists have long known that bats use sound to locate objects, by listening for the echo of their own high-pitched calls. New research shows that the squeaks also help the bats analyze a scene and remember terrain. These findings may lead to the development of new devices to help the blind.


Hungry for dirt: Just a quick snack, and then they'll return to your nightmares.
Hungry for dirt: Just a quick snack, and then they'll return to your nightmares.Courtesy JLplusAL
Seriously, dudes, everybody’s doing it. Just get a mouthful of the brown stuff (dirt) and you won’t regret it. You’ll be hooked. Geophagy is all the ragey.

What am I talking about? Good question—“ragey” isn’t even a word, so it might take some time to get to the bottom of this.

“Geophagy,” fortunately, is a real word, even if my spellchecker doesn’t think so. It means, um, the practice of eating dirt, or dirt-like substances (Merriam-Webster, here I come).

And you know what else? Geophagy is more popular than soccer! Assuming you include animals in your polls. So get on this train while it’s still cool—the longer you wait, the more of a Johnny come lately you’ll be. Fruit bats, of all creatures, are already into geophagy.

Some animals are into geophagy for the minerals—treating the dirt like a big, gritty vitamin. Fruit bats, it turns out, already get plenty of minerals from all the stuff they eat. You know—fruit. So why are they eating dirt (besides peer pressure)?

They’re detoxifying. Wild, huh? A lot of the fruit fruit bats eat is slightly poisonous. If you’re little, like a bat, and eat a lot of fruit, like a fruit bat, you might start to get some toxic buildup. Bats observed greophaging (or whatever) are often pregnant, or already nursing their young, both situations where the mother would want to have as few toxins in her system as possible.

Remarkably, some Indian groups in the Amazon region do the same thing—members of certain tribes are known to eat dirt when pregnant or nursing. There’s a risk of consuming parasites through this, but apparently the benefits are worth it, if you’re consuming plenty of poison.

Minerals in the dirt bind up toxins in the body, although scientists aren’t sure of the exact mechanism. The hope is that the science behind it could lead to novel therapies.

Oh, also, here are a bunch of other crazy things people have eaten. Enjoy.


A couple of "very large" bats: And do you know what they're thinking about? They're thinking about watching you when you're asleep, and maybe climbing into your hair.
A couple of "very large" bats: And do you know what they're thinking about? They're thinking about watching you when you're asleep, and maybe climbing into your hair.Courtesy robotbreeder
A recent issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology reports the discovery of half a dozen new (that is to say extinct) species of “giant” fossilized bats in Africa. The bats date from the Eocene, about 35 million years ago, and will no doubt shed great light on bat evolution. For instance, it has been thought that the northern hemisphere was the site of most bat evolution—that bat species went through the greatest diversification only after reaching the northern hemisphere—and now it seems that bats evolved into their modern forms in Africa before dispersing across the world.

The six new fossils are some of the most recent products of more than 25 years of fieldwork in Africa, and the largest of them would have weighed just less than half a pound in life; it was a “giant.”

The discovery and associated press release leads me to a single, important conclusion: people toss around the term “giant” way too freely. I realize that it’s something of a relative term (too be fair, the paleontologist said that the fossil was a “giant among bats”), but I think things have simply gone too far. Nothing that weighs less than half a pound is “giant” (unless it’s, like, a paperclip. That would be a pretty big paperclip), and some guidelines need to be set forth. I propose the following as a starting point, and I would appreciate additional points from readers.

1)Objects that are normally small (equal to or lesser than a 30 pound bag of dog food), to obtain the descriptor of “giant,” must be equal to in size or larger than a dog. Which dog? My brother’s dog, Morgan.

2)Objects normally of normal size (“normal size” being defined as a mass differing from my own by no more than forty pounds) may be called “giant” only if they exceed said forty pounds, or are of a “normal” mass, but are physically large enough to make me uncomfortable.

3)For food items to be accurately termed “giant” they must be at least twice their normal size, and potentially pose a physical threat to nearby humans. For example, while I might be able to choke on a normal sized hamburger in the course of chewing and swallowing, a truly “giant” hamburger would have to pose a suffocation risk while still outside of my mouth. A food item like a pancake, which could cause suffocation at its normal size, would then have to be large enough to, say, weigh a body down to the point where the victim could no longer reach another source of food or water (obviously a dangerous situation).

4)For monsters, a creature must be large enough to cause significant structural damage to a building of no less than three stories. So something like Bigfoot, while certainly still “big,” is not technically “giant.” At least not until it obtains demolition tools—who would argue with it then?

“Giant” rules aside, I’m still not sure that this Eocene fossil quite qualifies, even as a “giant among bats.” Flying Foxes, for instance, can achieve a wingspan of nearly six feet, and weigh up to a kilogram. Even though this wouldn’t place the Flying Foxes in the category of “giant” according to my rules (see guideline #1—giant fruit bats remain smaller than Morgan), they certainly blow the fossil bats out of the water. Or out of the sky. Or out of the dirt, I guess.

This may seem like a petty concern to raise, but I only do it for the good of society. When something really giant shows up (and something will—watch Godzilla if you don’t believe me), we’ll need some potent adjectives to deal with it. What we’re doing now is like abusing antibiotics. Potentially worse.


Bat concerns: The death of a Minnesota man from rabies this fall raises new concerns over the interactions between humans and bats.
Bat concerns: The death of a Minnesota man from rabies this fall raises new concerns over the interactions between humans and bats.Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
It was a Minnesota headline this week that made the nation-wide news…and just in time for Halloween.

A Minnesota man died last week from rabies after being bitten by a bat. It’s led to a lot of discussions about bats, rabies and how they all impact us. Last night during a training session here at the museum, the museum’s resident biologist made a sideline discussion on the topic, pointing out that many more bats than we’d ever imagine have rabies and that the only bats that are studied concerning rabies are those that have encounters with humans.

So let’s set the record straight on bats, rabies and how concerned we need to be on these issues. Here’s information direct from the Center for Disease Control.

In Minnesota, the most common animals to be carrying rabies are bats, skunks and fox. But rabies can be carried by a variety of mammals, including raccoons, coyotes and even dogs. Rabies is a viral disease that impacts our body’s central nervous system. Tens of thousands of people each year are treated for the condition, and usually a few die, primarily for not seeking treatment immediately after having been bitten by a rabid animal.

Now to the bat question. Some common misconceptions about bats: they’re blind, they want to suck your blood and they eat lots of mosquitoes. Bats do have low vision and use a radar-like system to sense objects, but they also can see. Bats are predators, but they prefer insects. But not insects as small as mosquitoes. They prefer bigger bugs like beetles. Think about, there’s not too much meat to munch on from a mosquito.

How do you know if a bat has rabies? The only way to find out is to have it tested in a laboratory. There are some clues that can help you be wary of a rabid bat: if it’s flying during the day, is found in an area you normally don’t find bats (including inside buildings) or is unable to fly. If it’s easy to approach, and therefore handle, there’s a stronger possibility that the bat is rabid.

What do you do if you’re bitten by a bat? After screaming and cursing you should wash the affected area immediately and get prompt medical attention. Bats do have extremely small teeth that may not leave a mark. It’s still best to have the area checked out by medical personnel even if it looks like your skin has not been punctured.

Some other misconceptions: people can’t get rabies from bat guano (feces), blood or urine. And you can’t get rabies from simply touching a bat.