Mexican bats up close: what’s not to love?
There are over 1,400 bat species worldwide, but only 350 species of dogs. You probably know some of the dogs, but how many species of bats have you seen?
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never looked at a bat up close in your entire life. Neither did I until I started caving as a hobby and then suddenly got thrown into the world of bats.
One of the first things I learned was that bats often turn off their famous echolocation systems when hanging out in what they consider to be their home … like we walk to our bathroom in the middle of the night without turning up a light.
How would you feel if, while walking – in the dark – you came across a large body right in the direction of your bathroom door?
This is what happens when a bat spots a cave explorer in their home. After a few clashes, I learned to tell bats that there was an intruder in the house … Yes, maybe by singing a little song while crouching at the entrance of a bat passage until the residents had a chance to notice you in your presence .
Most people only see bats from a distance, as fleeting shapes against a night sky, but as a cave explorer I could sense them as social beings.
In La Cueva del Chapuzón, the next big cave in Guadalajara, we crawled down a long narrow passage that ended at a high point near the ceiling of a large room. Coincidentally, there was a long, narrow crack in the roof of the room through which a few rays of sunlight happened to fall on a bunch of bats that was only two meters from the ceiling where we were watching them.
That meant we could see them right in front of us without using our lights, and we sat there on our little balcony for over an hour, our feet dangling in the room, totally entertained while we watched the antics of these bats.
They were grouped into clusters: family units? Circles of friends? Bat chats? I don’t know, but if you think bats sleep upside down all day, you are wrong. These little creatures were full of energy and very busy with everything they were doing … and then we discovered Lonesome George.
George the Bat was moving from group to group, obviously trying to take part in the action. With great effort he would push himself into a wobbling and wobbling mass of bodies, disappear for a minute and then suddenly jump out again.
“You don’t like him,” we whispered; but George, fearlessly, just walked over to the nearest cluster of corpses and pushed right inside, just a minute later it was ejected like a cassette (remember that?). George was by no means inclined to give up, however, and we all soon fired at him as he neared another social unit.
Years later, thanks to something that lowered bat frequencies to human audio levels, we discovered that all of this hectic activity is accompanied by the bat equivalent of loud chatter, laughter, wailing, and frequent yelling with someone on the other side of the room. Caves are considered quiet places, but when there are bats, it’s about as quiet as a Mexican fiesta independence.
So we began to suspect that bats were far more interesting creatures than we had ever imagined, and this was confirmed when we came across Archie.
Archie was a baby flying fox whose mother was electrocuted on power lines in Australia. When her body was taken off the wire, it turned out she still had a baby on her – and it was alive, cold, and thirsty.
Archie was fed, kept warm, and soon handed over to a volunteer foster parent: Richard Morecroft, a TV newscaster who tells the story of what happened next in his book Raising Archie, published 1991 by Simon & Schuster.
Morecroft’s story is fun and heartwarming. He describes how he feeds and washes his little flying fox, changes his diaper, takes him to the post office to be weighed and, three months later, teaches him to fly.
Since the baby bat initially needed constant grooming, Morecroft had to bring it to the studio where he worked. There, wrapped in a handkerchief – a substitute for his mother’s wings – it occasionally wiggled under his shirt when he read the news every night.
Thanks to the author’s media connections, the book contains 54 delightful photographs, and it’s hard to believe that a person could leaf through them without falling in love with this little creature with the big, beautiful eyes.
Archie’s photos contrast dramatically with the images of bats that appeared in textbooks and encyclopedias before 1982. Usually a researcher would catch a bat in a net, untangle it, and hold it by its outstretched wings, while a colleague would take a photo of the utterly frightened, fighting creature showing its teeth for what they could only guess it was Acted on predators that would devour them.
But then in 1982, Merlin Tuttle, the beloved face of the Milwaukee Public Museum, left his comfortable position and moved to Austin, Texas to start Bat Conservation International.
Tuttle knew all too well that all over the world bats were considered terrifying shadows in the dark: rabid, winged rats. He also knew that they were truly peaceful creatures, as smart and loving as dogs, and that neither the planet nor humanity could do without them.
Realizing that bats most needed a PR agent, Tuttle set out to help them change their image. In addition to writing numerous articles for National Geographic, Tuttle spent endless hours photographing bats the way they normally look while they go about their business, pollinating plants, fighting insects, and distributing seeds.
He achieved this by taking the bat off the net, calming it down, feeding it with his fingers and then training it to cooperate with him in a large studio that he would set up in the jungle, on a mountain top or in a hotel room.
Because bats are so smart, it can only take them a day or two to fly to the top of a cactus (chopped off and glued to a pole) on cue, for example, to pollinate its recently opened flower.
To get a picture of just one bat worthy of Nat Geo, Tuttle would take up to 10,000 photos. This, of course, was in the days before digital photography, when photographers spent hours deep in a cave, having no idea if even one of their images could be a winner.
In his book The secret life of the batsis how Merlin Tuttle describes his Modus operandi:
“The next evening my assistants set nets on a fruit-bearing fig tree in the Kakamega forest [in Kenya] and caught three Wahlberg’s epaulette flying foxes, ”he writes. “They willingly accepted food from my hand. I practically lived with my bats night after night until I could pick up, pick up, carry around, and even wipe a dirty face with a handkerchief.
“Like all bats, each had its own personality and intelligence, and some allowed freedoms that were not accepted by others. Knowing their individual personalities was important. “
The short time bats normally get has often crossed my mind as a cave explorer because it didn’t take me long to discover that there is a “war on bats” going on in many parts of rural Mexico, which I would like to describe in a future one Items.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco for 31 years and is the author of A guide to the Guachimontones and the surrounding area in western Mexico and co-author of Outdoors in western Mexico. You can find more of his writing on his website.