`Masters of the Night' Fights a Bum Rap for Bats
A traveling exhibit shows that bats are harmless and useful, despite many myths about the animal
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICH.
COUNT Dracula of film and folklore fame turned into a bat to elude detection. Bats, like wolves, are associated with the night and evil in myths and old horror movies. It's a bum rap for both bats and wolves.Skip to next paragraph
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While wolves have been somewhat rehabilitated in the public eye, bats are still feared and despised. They are not flying rats. They do not get entangled in ladies' hair. They are not blind. But as a result of such misinformation, bats are in danger.
A fascinating interactive exhibit seeks to dispel the myths and bring the complex world of bats out of the dark of superstitious distrust and into the light of understanding. "Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats" proves that bats are beneficial - controlling insects, pollinating deserts, and dispersing seeds throughout the rain forests.
Now at the Cranbrook Institute of Science here through Sept. 12, the exhibit will appear in approximately 40 North American locations as well as Asian and European venues over the next six years.
"Bats are among the most important endangered animals, largely because of human misunderstanding," says Merlin Tuttle, a behavioral ecologist, wildlife photographer, and conservationist. "So it's quite clear that education is an essential element in saving them. They are important in many ways. A recent study from Indiana State University showed that a colony of big brown bats could protect local farmers from 18 million or more root worms each summer, and root worms cost the American farmer about $1 bill ion a year.
"The little brown bat can catch 600 mosquitos in a single hour," Dr. Tuttle says. "We have a colony of 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats in Bracken Cave in Texas. This one colony of bats eats 250 tons of insects in a single night. It's hard to even imagine the ecological or economic impact of that."
The design of the exhibit is geared primarily for children, though a fun-house atmosphere also entertains adults. As viewers enter, a gallery of horrors reminds them of myths from around the world. Mysterious Asian bat gods guard a Dracula-like castle where everything is hung upside down - viewers thus get a bat's-eye view of the goofy beliefs about bat habits.
Once through the myths, it's time for realism - and instructive fun. "We want to bring children into the museum and open their minds," says Stacy Bishkin of BBH Exhibits Inc., producer of "Masters of the Night." "We have an opportunity to appreciate and preserve these creatures."
The exhibit will not only inform but also encourage youngsters to think, Ms. Bishkin says. It has been designed, she says, to help kids see the bat's point of view, understand its importance to the earth and to human beings, and appreciate the animals' uniqueness. Puzzles prepare kids to identify various species of bats, and a beautifully photographed video teaches bat conservation.
A simple bat house encourages viewers to build their own in the backyard - excellent insect repellents, joked one curator. There is a bat cave in which young children may try out hanging upside down. One exhibit illustrates how bat mothers can locate their own babies among hundreds of others, responding to the offspring's peculiar signature cry. Bats are excellent mothers, producing only one (and in some rare cases two) infants a year. Baby bats are nearly one-third the body-weight of the mother at birth . Bats are mammals, nursing their young for several weeks before the babies are ready to forage for themselves.
Several ingenious displays demonstrate bat anatomy, bat flight, and bat echo-sonar, the method by which most bat species (most are nocturnal) get around in the dark.
Viewers visit a bat scientist's lab where bat photos and bat posters line the walls, a Batman T-shirt drapes over a chair, bat fossils lie on a desk near a photocopy machine and a coffee maker, and various reconstructed bat skulls reveal the secrets of bat adaptation. A video station allows the viewer to choose which bats to watch, slow the film down, reverse it, or stop it. The idea is to help the viewer understand that people devote their lives to the study of bats because bats are that important.