California Educator

October 2015

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The Real Bat Man Why are bats so darn fascinating? I imag- ine it comes with their perceived mystery and ability to do things we can't, such as fly, and do that in the dark. Scientific investigation has revealed far more fascinating traits, such as the ability of hibernating bats to delay pregnancy until the spring, live more than 40 years, survive near-freezing body temperatures, and go two and a half hours without breathing. What about vampire bats? Of the approx- imately 1,200 extant bat species, just three occupy the specialized niche of hematophagy (blood consumption), and only in the American tropics. I find it fascinating that more species have not occupied this niche in other parts of the world. I would think that any vampire bat would salivate to see the smorgasbord of meals spread out across the African savanna. Vampire bats have an anticoagulant in their saliva, by the way, that scientists named draculin. They also have a clot-busting antithrombogenic, under investigation as a medication for stroke victims. And the real kicker — they have a vasodilator that keeps the blood flowing freely from the small incisions they make. They then lap it up like a kitten drinking milk — not by sucking, as goes another common misconception. What's your advice to people who encounter bats? Treat bats like exposed electric wires: You can't tell if it's dangerous by looking at it, but it can't hurt you if you don't touch it. What do you still want to discover? Bats save farmers $23 billion annually in reduced crop damage and pesticide use. Many of the dominant trees of tropical rainforests depend upon bats for either pollination or seed dis- persal. Those are just some of the beneficial eco-services that bats provide. I hope to contin- ue contributing to what we understand about these miraculous animals and develop methods to help us better support them, so that we can always share our planet and skies with them. " I D O N ' T T H I N K bats should frighten anyone," says Joe Szewczak, biology pro- fessor at Humboldt State University and bat expert. "However, that comes from knowing them well. Fear affects perception. Some people run away frightened, thinking that bats are chasing them. Typically the bats over their heads were probably attracted to the insects above their heads and were doing them a favor." Szewczak, California Faculty Association, notes that bats have lower rates of rabies than other species, such as raccoons or foxes. He is vaccinated against rabies and regularly checks his antibodies to confirm protection. It must work. A few years ago, for the Discovery Channel, he hosted a segment on vampire bats that was filmed on location in Belize. He recalls: "I had the rather unique fortune to lie awake in the dark feigning sleep as five vampire bats shared a meal from one bite on my elbow and two on my toes. I quietly provided a narrative of the experience over the hour that they fed. Not many people can say they have descended a trophic level below a fellow vertebrate and survived." Hmmmm. "Bites count as just one way that anyone who works with an animal gets to know them better," adds Szewczak. "I have a long list of bites from different taxa, and in my opinion, bats have one of the least damaging or annoying bites. Besides, once you get the feel for handling them, you don't often have to make that comparison." Szewczak, who has a Ph.D. from Brown University, teaches animal phys- iology, human physiology, and biology of the Chiroptera — also known as bats, which are often mistaken as rodents. He has the utmost respect for bats, which are the only mammal to achieve powered flight and among the few that use sonar echoes to find their way around. Szewczak has studied many bat species, looking at migration patterns, social communication, endangered species, and how to reduce fatalities caused by energy-producing wind turbines. He and colleagues recently completed a two- year trial that proved high-intensity ultrasound emitted from turbines can steer In Joe Szewczak's words: Member spotlight Photo courtesy Humboldt State University bats away from death. He has also investigated whether bats really get tangled in women's hair — and found it to be mostly a myth. —Sherry Posnick-Goodwin 21 V O LU M E 2 0 I S S U E 3 Perspectives

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