|Fig. 1 The Destruction of Job’s Sons, from Illustrations
of the Book of Job, 1825–26. Engraving by William Blake.
Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Copyright: Public Domain, Universal (CC0 1.0).
“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula
If you ever trek through the dense undergrowth of the Borneo rainforests, you will eventually get to a clearing where monkey song and colorful epiphytes give way to the gigantic rocky face of Deer Cave. If you peer inside, you will no longer find busy gorillas nor the orange beaks of toucans. The limestone system has instead been colonized by a different animal. Bats have been the nocturnal tenants of this subterranean realm for more than fifty million years.1
A total of 1,300 species of bats have made almost every face of the earth their home. They can weigh anything from the 2 gram bumblebee bat to the hefty 1.5 kilogram fruit bat.2 When they are not roosting upside down, they play a vital role in ensuring, sometimes exclusively, the pollination of flowers. Plants (and their consumers) can also use bats to their advantage by absorbing their highly nutritious guano.
The most infamous is the vampire bat, from the Slavic term “vampir” meaning “drunk on blood.” In European folklore, these bats supposedly turn seductor by night, drying out the jugulars of poor, thrill-seeking men and women. The South American Desmodus Rotundus was nicknamed the “vampire bat” by European explorers on their journeys through the jungles. The discovery that a small colony of these bats could slurp out the hemoglobin “of around 25 cows in one year”3 caused the explorers to merge myth with mammal. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) helped to popularize the link between the two throughout the rest of the world. However, even before this depiction, from the rulers of ancient civilizations to medieval peasants, humans have been associating bats with malice and evil.
According to Leviticus 11:13-20, “you shall regard as an abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten: the eagle, the vulture… and the bat.” Job’s tale in the Old Testament tells of how a man’s faith in God remains unwavering, even amidst the destruction of everything he holds dear. Fig. 1 shows William Blake’s depiction of one of Job’s tests: to remain a believer even as his son is scooped away by the larger-than-life bat-winged Satan. Christianity-inspired folklore in Europe helped to categorize bats as a sort of unofficial mascot of hell.
Similarly, Mayan mythology tells of the bat god Camazotz (literally meaning “death-bat”). His spread umbrella-framed wings guarded sinkholes which were believed to be portals to the Underworld. Observing the nightly diets of vampire bats would have no doubt contributed to the association of bats with death.4
In contrast to many other cultures, the Chinese see the bat in a positive light. In Chinese, “luck” and “bat” are homonyms (both pronounced fu) and so bats are a symbol of happiness. In fact, in Chinese art, “five bats are often used to depict the five blessings: health, prosperity, long life, love of virtue, and a tranquil, natural death.”5
But even with the advent of twenty-first century science, humans still tend to fear bats. Able to host more than 200 pathogens, including the viruses that cause rabies, Ebola, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS),6 bats can spread diseases to humans without being affected themselves.7 Contrary to folklore where bat-related ailments are supposedly blood-borne, infections caused by bats do not come from the fangs but rather from excretions.
One thousand miles west of Deer Cave lies the Malaysian town of Tambun. At the cusp of the twenty-first century, a global middle class was emerging. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that “meat consumption in developing countries ha[d] risen from 10 kilograms in 1964 to 26 kilograms per person in 1999”8 and the meat industry was trying to meet the growing demands as efficiently as possible. One particular farm in Tambun contained not only a respectable 30,000 pigs but also 400 mango trees around the periphery of the pig pens, reflecting the tripling of both mango and pork production in the area in 1999. The region almost single-handedly bankrupted the multi-million dollar pork industry when “265 cases of acute encephalitis with 105 deaths” were reported, the majority of whom were farmers and abattoir workers. The cause of the encephalitis outbreak was the Nipah virus.9
While the direct transmission of this fatal virus from bats to humans is rare, pigs make good amplifier hosts. Pigs can be infected if they come into “contact with saliva on fomites (discarded fruit pulp)” or the feces and urine of affected Pteropus fruit bats. The co-establishment of mango and pork enterprises in such close proximity set off a chain reaction of outbreaks in the area with the Nipah virus being carried to neighboring farms via boar semen.9
One of the culprits of agricultural intensification thought to be responsible for the spillover of viruses from wild animals to humans is deforestation. The consequence of deforestation is the destruction of habitats that cause “more intensive interactions between humans, livestock, and wildlife.”10 It is not only the Nipah virus that has been coaxed out as a result of natural resource exploitation by humans. A similar case occurred in the 2003 SARS outbreak. The SARS-related coronavirus, predominantly hosted by bats, infected humans via the civet cats on display in Chinese markets, taking 774 lives worldwide.11
In Mauritius, only 5% of natural forests remain. This disruption in their habitat has meant fruit bats have settled into new homes in the fruit orchards that replaced their native ones. Unfortunately, this has led to the culling of 50,000 bats since 2015.12 This has threatened the biodiversity of the country, since many species are reliant on bats to thrive. The culls have grown so large that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has called for a ban on them.13
So, it would seem that the myths and legends of civilizations past did get some things right about the little bat. They are nocturnal; they do like to haunt quintessentially terrifying places like caves; and some of them, from time to time, do feast on the blood of others. However, as we take more and more of their property in the biosphere, killing any that perch on our farms, the perception of evil and malice shifts from them to us. We have only just realized that, like many other animals we are innately scared of, bats have more reason to fear us than we have of them. If Bram Stoker could envision the seamless shapeshifting between man and bat, why can’t we, now more than ever, find a way to coexist at the same time in the same space?
- Randerson, J. Fossils solve mystery of bat evolution. The Guardian. Feb 2008. Website: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/feb/13/bat.evolution Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Types of Bats. The Bat Conservation Trust. Website: https://www.bats.org.uk/about-bats/what-are-bats Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Common Vampire Bat. National Geographic. Website: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/c/common-vampire-bat/ Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Addams, E. Camazotz: the Mayan bat god. HistoricalMX. Website: http://historicalmx.org/items/show/90 Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- A short history of bats. Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. Oct 2016. Website: http://blog.healthywildlife.ca/a-short-history-of-bats-in-art/ Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Allocati N., Petrucci A. G., Giovanni P. Di., Masulli M., Di Ilio C., De Laurenzi V. Bat–man disease transmission: zoonotic pathogens from wildlife reservoirs to human populations. Cell Death Discovery. Website: https://www.nature.com/articles/cddiscovery201648 Published online: Jun 27, 2016. Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Baker, M. Why bats don’t get sick from the deadly diseases they carry. The Conversation. February 23, 2016 Website: http://theconversation.com/why-bats-dont-get-get-sick-from-the-deadly-diseases-they-carry-55012 Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- World agriculture 2030: Main findings. FAO Newsroom. Website: http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/news/2002/7833-en.html Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Kulkarni D.D., Tosh C., Venkatesh G., and Senthil Kumar D. Nipah virus infection: current scenario. Indian J Virol. 2013 Dec; 24(3): 398–408. Website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3832692/ Published online 2013 Nov 7. Date accessed: April 9, 2019.
- Bryony A. J., Grace D., Kock R., et al. Zoonosis emergence and agroecological change National Academy of Sciences. May 2013. 110 (21) 8399-8404. Website: https://www.pnas.org/content/110/21/8399 Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Frequently Asked Questions About SARS. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Viral diseases. Website: https://www.cdc.gov/sars/about/faq.html Page last reviewed: May 2005. Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- Dalton, J. Endangered fruit bats ‘being driven to extinction’ in Mauritius after mass culls kill 50,000. The Independent. March 3, 2019. Website: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/fruit-bats-mauritius-endangered-species-flying-foxes-cull-extinct-a8805966.html Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
- IUCN calls for an end to culls of the Mauritius Fruit Bat. IUCN. Dec 19, 2018. Website: https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201812/iucn-calls-end-culls-mauritius-fruit-bat Date accessed: March 28, 2019.
TAJRI SALEK is taking a gap year between school and university, then hopes to study medicine. She is nineteen years old, enjoys poetry and creative writing, and tries to incorporate biological science into her work. After university, she hopes to continue exploring the links between the human body and the natural environment by specializing in tropical infectious diseases.