A history of bats – When mammals fly.

December 9

A BAT CAN’T SEE IN THE DARK, BUT A BAT CAN FIND ITS WAY. TO BATS, EVEN THE BLACKEST NIGHT IS THREE-DIMENSIONAL. THEY CAN CATCH TINY INSECTS WHILE FLYING AT 60 KILOMETRES PER HOUR USING NOTHING BUT SOUND. WE THINK THINGS ARE AS WE SEE THEM, BUT BATS KNOW OTHERWISE. THE WORLD WAS NOT MADE JUST FOR US.

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PEKAPEKA DREAM. ART: SVEN GRABOW

BAT OF THE YEAR

Bats are not birds. Yet, in a turn of events that made the news around the world, a bat won New Zealand’s 2021 Bird of the Year / Te Manu Rongonui o te Tau competition. It was the first time since the conservation organisation Forest & Bird started the competition, 16 years ago, that a mammal was on the ballot, and it caused a kerfuffle. The headline in the New York Times said it all: ‘New Zealand Held a Bird Contest. A Bat Won.’

“100% of our native land mammals are bats”

There was trash-tagging on Twitter. Pro-bat tweeters pointed out that “manu”, as in Te Manu Rongonui o te Tau, can refer not just to birds, but to many flying creatures, including bats. Then there was the fact that when it comes to the bird / not bird dichotomy, things can get weird in this part of the world. New Zealand’s bats, who fly, roost in trees and eat insects, act more like birds than a lot of our native birds do, who insist on snuffling around in the dirt and living in burrows. Some of them don’t even have wings.

BAT IN BLACK. PHOTO: CHRIS HILLOCK

In the anti-bat corner, there was a lot of “WTF?”. TVNZ’s Breakfast show compared it to the “assault on democracy” that was the Trump presidency. There were also a few “what nows”? If things like fur and teeth are no longer a barrier, who else might be in the running for Bird of the Year? Suggestions included the puriri moth, the gurnard, opposition leader Judith Collins and NK- NHF, Air New Zealand’s new A320 Airbus.

“not bad for something that gives birth to live young”

Despite this, the long-tailed bat / pekapeka- tou-roa smashed it. With 7031 votes, our nocturnal flapper got nearly 3000 more votes than celebrities like the epic parrot that is the kākāpō, and more than quadruple the tally of the rockhopper penguin. Eerily, voting closed at 5pm on October 31, Halloween. It was as if it had been planned all along.

SCARY OR NOT? YOU DECIDE

In Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer, in which the author uses only the thousand (or “ten hundred”) most common words to describe just about everything, he refers to bats as “skin birds”. This is language used well. It conveys the particular combination of loveable (sweet snout, comical humanlike ears, tiny feet) and nightmarish (wings made of skin stretched over bony forelimbs, fangs) that is the bat.

Bats do get a bad rap. They are associated with madness (as in “batty”), disease (as in viruses, especially you-know-what) and fear (as in lots of scary movies). In the opening scene of the first-ever horror film, Le Manoir du diable (1896), a bat flutters in the hallway of a gothic castle. And who can forget the giant mill bat that terrorises the hard- as-nails textile factory dudes in Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift (1990)? Actually, it might have been a mill bat / mill rat hybrid. Whatever, it was creepy as fuck.

F A C T S A B O U T B A T S

Bats represent approximately one fifth of all mammals on earth; they live on every continent except Antarctica. In Aotearoa, 100% of our native land mammals are bats. Here, they are precious, and strange. A Bat of the Year competition would be a two- horse race.

ROOST TREE, TALBOT FOREST, GERALDINE. PHOTO: LAURA WILLIAMSON

The pekapeka was one of three native species of bat native to New Zealand. Long-tailed bats, or Chalinolobus tuberculatus, arrived about a million years ago. They probably flew over from Australia. They are distinct from short-tailed bats, the ancient Mystacina, who have been around for more like 35 million years. There used to be two types of short- tailed bats in Aotearoa, but only one, the lesser short-tailed bat, survived the arrival of people. The greater short-tailed bat was last seen in the late sixties, near Stewart Island. It is probably extinct.

There are many things to love about the long-tailed bat. They are insectivores, feeding on the three terrible Ms of the insect world: midges, moths and mosquitos. They can eat up to 25% of their own body weight in insects each night. Bats are the only mammals capable of continued flight, and long-tailed bats are champs. They can fly as far as 35 kilometres in one go (not quite godwit stats, but not bad for something that gives birth to live young). Long-tailed bats are, confusingly, shorter than short-tailed bats. They are teeny – an adult is about the size of a hefty human thumb – and they weigh the same as a $2 coin. Adorable.

Still, there is something unsettling about any bat, even one that looks like a flying baby gerbil. It’s probably the same thing that troubles some of us in the sea, nervous about what might be swimming below – humans are uncomfortable in environments we can’t master. It’s why we modify everything: drain wetlands, log forests, install lights so we can cope at night. Bats use echolocation to navigate: they send out a clicking sound, which bounces back off objects to create a map of everything around them. They can see when, and what we can’t.

The good news is, we have the technology to hear what they hear. You can listen to bats with a “bat detector”, which uses an ultrasonic microphone to translate their calls into something that sounds like someone playing hambones at high speed.

Top spots for long-tailed bat spotting include the Whanganui River, Waikato’s Pureora Forest, as well as, weirdly, Auckland. Auckland City Council even runs bat walks (detectors supplied). In the South Island, Geraldine is the place. Talbot Forest Scenic Reserve, in the centre of town, is one of the easiest places to see pekepeka in the wild. They roost in the big old totara, matai and kahikatea trees. Head out at dusk and look for flitting just below the treeline.

AN INVISIBLE STREAM

When I was a kid, my dad told me stories about logging in the coastal forests of British Columbia, Canada, in the sixties. The one I remember best was about what he saw one day in Tahsis Inlet, on Nootka Sound.

He’s walking on the beach with a friend, a local guy, and they come across a throng of salmon just below the waterline. They’re jumping and swimming in circles, madly, around and around, over and over. There are a whole bunch more out of the water too, dead on the shore.

Logging practices were less refined fifty years ago than they are today. On the coast, timber was sometimes dragged from where it was felled down to the water by a cable threaded through an ‘A-frame yarder’ mounted on a raft. A donkey engine reeled the cable in, and each log left a strip of torn-up landscape in its wake.

Like bats, salmon don’t just navigate with their eyes. They can tap into cues other than visual ones, including ‘reading’ the earth’s magnetic field. They use this ability to return to the waters they were born in to spawn – it doesn’t matter how many miles they’ve travelled in their lifetime, or how many winters they’ve spent at sea. They go back to the exact place where they hatched. It’s hard-wired.

“There used to be a stream there,” his friend says.

FOWL PLAY

“I think I’m going to be fired,” Forest & Bird’s Bird of the Year spokesperson Laura Keown joked when the pekapeka-tou-roa took out the 2021 crown. But BOTY is no stranger to scandal. In 2018, the year the kererū won, 300 fraudulent votes were detected, cast by Australians gleefully trying to throw the race in favour of the shag. The 2019 result (winner: hoiho / yellow-eyed penguin) was called into question when a suspiciously high number of votes – 335 – came from Russia. But the BOTY team insisted the votes were legit. Apparently, there are a lot of Russian ornithologists.

Bird of the Year was launched in 2005 by Forest & Bird’s communications team to draw attention to the plight of Aotearoa’s endangered birds, and in this matter, the controversy was a coup. There were 56,733 verified votes cast in 2021, the most ever. And if pekepeka aren’t exactly feathered, they do share one trait with our native and endemic birds: they are in trouble.

As Laura explained, “these flying furballs are threatened by the same problems as our native birds – predators, habitat loss and climate change”. With numbers declining by about 5% per year, long-tailed bats are now rated “nationally critical”.

They fall victim to predators (one stoat, rat, or feral cat can kill up to 100 bats in a single night); to competition for roost trees from introduced mammals, wasps and birds; as well as to humans, who have a bad habit of chopping down their habitats. Even worse, they breed slowly, producing only one pup per season – which, speaking of adorable, are the size of bumblebees. And, like salmon, they have a strong homing instinct, so can’t be translocated to safe zones.

It’s no wonder, when it came time for the Ministry of the Environment to formally endorse a BOTY candidate, they chose the pekapeka-tou-roa.

WE ARE ALL IN THE BELFRY

Bats were everywhere in the 1800s. Settlers described colonies numbering in the “hundreds” and “thousands”, and they were commonly sighted in the nascent cities of Invercargill and Dunedin. In Christchurch, they used to roost under the bridges on the Avon River.

Since humans arrived in Aotearoa, as well as the greater short-tailed bat, more than fifty species of birds, three lizards, three frogs, and a freshwater fish have disappeared. We can see, but that isn’t everything there is, nor everything that matters. Sometimes, we are scared of the wrong things.

Bats are not birds, but they are a canary in our coal mine. Can you hear the wings?

LAURA WILLIAMSON


This article is even better in print.


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