PUTTING NAMES ON THINGS

Aka putting cute faces on scary blood sucking monsters.

Was that a little intense? Sorry. Let’s start again.

Sunday was bat day. Bat night. Bat students hearing about bat studies. Or something like that.

My limited knowledge of bats meant only one thing: I was in for a lot of amazement. Force feeding friends, flying foxes, frog eaters… I feel like I could write an awfully long post about all those strange bat discoveries, but I won’t. First, because I fear I might just end up switching study-field. Second, because I’m quite sure you will hear more about bats in this blog.  So let’s talk about something a little less sexy: people’s perception of bats.

You don’t need a PhD to understand that, outside our evening gathering where enthusiastic bat-loving researchers were showing cute little bats to the public, there are not only sympathizers to the cause of bats. So, there is actually one thing I wasn’t surprised to hear during Bat night: that people’s misconceptions of bats still lead to a lot of irrational killings. “They think all bats are vampire bats, they think they all have rabies”, was saying the researcher to whom I asked. In the case of Panamanians, I have to admit that one of their fears might be justified: vampire bats can bite cows, and those wounds can get infected. But apart from that, people also believe that those bites will result in bad milk, crazy cows, and who knows what else. This, and fear of rabies, brings people to kill everything that has to do with bats in their environment. A sad situation for the bat community, especially knowing that it is not specific to Panama: all over the world, bats are perceived by many as nothing more than pest, leading, again, to unjustified decimation of bat populations, contributing in turn to their worldwide decline (Pennisi et al. 2004).

However, bats are all but pest: in fact, a study that took place in BCI (Barro Colorado Island) showed that, in this case, bats played a greater role than birds in controlling insect herbivory (Kalka et al. 2008). Importance of bats in pest control has been confirmed in several other places. For instance, in the United States, foreseeing the disaster that could take place regarding the decimation of bats populations by the white-nose syndrome, it was estimated that related agricultural losses could be up to 3,7 US $ a year (Boyles et al. 2011). Not to forget that bats are also important pollinators!

Moreover, “l’envers de la médaille” (Just trying to teach you some good French expressions! Nothing to do with being unsure of the right translation.) of bats, which should be Dracula cows and rabies, is actually not that bad. Very few bats carry the rabies. In fact, a lot of them have developed a resistance to the disease, which not only makes them immune to it, but also prevents any transmission. However, when a bat population starts declining, because of an external cause like scared humans, rabies cases suddenly explode. So rabies is definitely not a good excuse to kill a bat. As for the Dracula cow. I haven’t found any studies on that case, but, well.

I know that the portrait I am brushing here is quite simplistic. But it is because what I am actually interested in here is the general idea behind this story. People kill bats because they fear them. They fear them because they don’t really know bats. Hence, the importance of science: I only mentioned a few studies, but I think that all the academic work that is done on bats is crucial to changing people’s attitude towards them.

This makes me think a lot of a situation in Quebec:  in 1920-1930, there was a great abundance of belugas in the Saint-Lawrence river. It is said that at times, boats couldn’t even pass because of their presence. At that time, cod fishing was an important economical activity, but the cod was declining fast. Some people made a rapid connection: where there was cod, there was always some belugas hanging around. Belugas must eat cod. So everything was put into place to take care of the mean belugas. The government started paying people for every whale that was killed. Then, it subsidized bombing of beluga infested areas. This went on for over ten years. Then somebody had the idea of dissecting a beluga to try and see what it was actually eating. Turns out, belugas biologically can’t even eat cod. They happened to hang around cods simply because they ate the same things. Now, belugas are on the list of threatened species in Canada and Quebec (Dionne 2007).

My point is, wildlife management is a great responsibility. It has great consequences and often, when we think we know everything, we actually have not understood a thing at all. This is true, I think, both in tropical and temperate regions. This is why I believe that the researchers we met at Bat night are doing a great job: not only are they breaking myths about bats by studying them carefully, but they also work hard on transmitting these notions to the public, using their best assets: cute little bats for whom (almost) everybody’s heart melted a little. (Damn it, that’s one more reason to want to study bats.)

SOURCES

Boyles, J.G. et al., 2011. Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture. Science, 332(6025), p.41 LP-42. Available at: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/332/6025/41.abstract.

Kalka, M.B., Smith, A.R. & Kalko, E.K. V, 2008. Bats limit arthropods and herbivory in a tropical forest. Science (New York, N.Y.), 320(5872), p.71. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18388286.

Pennisi, L. a., Holland, S.M. & Stein, T. V., 2004. Achieving Bat Conservation Through Tourism. Journal of Ecotourism, 3(3), pp.195–207.

Dionne, S. & Gourbillière, C. 2007. Béluga du Saint-Laurent. http://www.ameriquefrancaise.org/fr/article-103/B%C3%A9luga%20du%20Saint-Laurent#.WIGDcxvhDif .

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