`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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

As bat conservationists are fond of pointing out, most bats aren't glamour animals (like pandas). For hundreds of years they have been regarded as pests. So, while nearly 25 percent of all mammals in the world are bats - 1,000 species inhabit the caves, mines, trees, and attics of the earth - ignorance and fear are destroying bats wholesale.

Bat Conservation International (BCI) provided the information for the exhibit and many of the still and motion-picture images that open viewers' eyes. Dr. Tuttle, BCI's founder, captured bats, tamed them sufficiently to photograph them in natural settings, and thus demonstrated how bats benefit the environment. Some bats are indeed odd- looking to humans. But fruit bats are cute. The largest of all bats, they have big eyes, long noses, and look a lot like dogs with wings. These bats have no sonar apparat us, because they are diurnal and can see where they are going in the daylight.

Janet Tyburec, the educational resources coordinator of BCI, points out that a lot of Tuttle's success in raising consciousness about bats is due to his excellent photos presenting bats in a light people had never seen before - roosting in caves or trees, licking pollen from their faces, eating figs, or catching insects on the wing.

Ms. Tyburec also addresses the myths and misconceptions that have plagued bat-human relations. One of the worst is the Dracula myth. Out of a thousand species, only one bat is a vampire.

"Because of the one true vampire that feeds on the blood of horses and cows, people think all bats are vampires," Tyburec says. "But the vampires' range is very restricted - [it's] strictly a Latin American vampire. There are none near the United States - or Transylvania, for that matter. Man has introduced domesticated cattle and horses to the vampires' rain-forest territory, which has allowed [the bats] to increase to artificially high numbers. We realize they need to be controlled - but only vampires.

"A problem with a lot of vampire control is that it is not species specific," Tyburec says. "Because most of these bats roost in trees, people think they can just burn down the trees. Unfortunately hundreds of other beneficial fruit- and nectar-eating bats also roost in trees."

The US has 43 species of bats, of which 40 percent either are listed as endangered or are candidates for that classification, Tyburec says. A lot of that has to do with loss of natural habitat. Many of these bats roost in old-growth forests. As the forests are cut down, the bats lose their habitat.

"Other bats are very vulnerable when they hibernate or roost in maternity colonies in large caves," Tyburec says. "When a bat hibernates it tries to store up all the fat it can during the summer so it can live off that fat during the winter time. They go into a state we call torpor - circulation, breathing, and heartbeat slow down, which allows them to sleep through the winter. Now, when cavers come into the cave and wake them up they expend a lot of energy raising their metabolism back up to become acti ve again." Bats can starve to death if they awaken too often.

Cavers may not know they are doing anything to hurt the bats, Tyburec points out. The same thing can happen to flightless young. If they perceive a threat from a caver, they will crawl around on the ceiling trying to get away from the predator. If they fall to the ground, they will be eaten by any number of animals on the floor of the cave. If that happens too often, there are no babies that year and no population growth.

But already in the BCI's 10-year history, preservation strides have been made. Many known hibernacula and maternity colonies for endangered gray bats and Indiana bats have been protected in the US. The BCI is working with several nature-conservancy groups and government agencies to track and study US bat populations.

* `Masters of the Night' will be on display next at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Oct. 9 through Jan. 16, 1994.

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