“The day belongs to man, but the night is his.” I was thinking a few weeks ago about the haunting promo line for the (rather flimsy) film version of the great novel Night wings, by Martín Cruz Smith (Argos Vergara, 1977), about an invasion of vampire bats infected with bubonic plague in a Hopi reservation in Arizona, which is already a topic. It came to mind because I was experiencing a similar situation: a bat had crept into my house in Viladrau, in the mountains, and the uncle was flying again and again from side to side of the room, flying through the air right before my eyes , at the height of the television screen, in which I wish I could say that they gave The brides of Dracula but it was actually the news from La 1.
The bug was surely a common bat, a pipistrelo (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), which is what, by the way, they called the Italian bombers Savoia-Marchetti SM 81 of the Civil War, there it is. But go to know, maybe it was a rare one like the giant noctule, or a myotis, or a clueless -because there are none in Montseny- common molossus (Tadarida brasiliensis) such as those that make up the great colonies of the southern United States and that constitute a first-rate spectacle, worthy of Bram Stoker, when millions fly out of their bedrooms in dark columns similar to sinister Transylvanian banners silhouetted against the twilight.
It is not that I have seen it personally, that display of patagios, but the ecologist, conservationist and passionate defender and disseminator of bats Merlin Tuttle (Honolulu, 79 years old) explains it wonderfully, author of the essential The Secret Lives of Bats, My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals (The secret lives of bats, my adventures with the most misunderstood of mammals, HMH, 2015). Tuttle, who tries to make us aware of how amazing and interesting, and not at all sinister, those creatures that will never get tangled in your hair are, was the scientist who saved the famous colony of a million molossers that lives in the eighties from extermination in summer under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas. Tuttle reversed his notoriety to turn those bats and his spectacular and intimidating mass flight at sunset into one of the city’s great tourist attractions, which, according to its mayor, became “The bat capital of America,” the bat capital of America, thus unseating Gotham.
In his book, the best bat I know, not forgetting that of Cruz Smith, Dracula and the Batman comics, the biologist justifies his love for these maligned creatures – and even more so now that they are pointed out as a vector of transmission of the covid, in addition to spreading rabies -, and he takes us on a trip with him to live extraordinary adventures ( even on the River Kwai) in search of the rarest and most fascinating species (there are a thousand in total, 30 in Spain). Among them the pinto bat, the white one from Honduras, the one with yellow wings, the endangered flying fox from Samoa, or the frog eaters, who can identify them by their wedding songs. In Africa, the naturalist had to face lions, mambas, furious and furtive elephants; Fortunately, he was accompanied by a Kikuyu wildlife specialist trained in counterinsurgency by Mossad.
Hand in hand with Tuttle we entered the immense caves where bats take refuge, such as the one in Thailand where a tiger also lived, which made it difficult to visit; the Khao Chong Prang or the famous Bracken Cave, near San Antonio (Texas), a dantesque place where bats, between 10 and 20 million of them (the largest colonies of mammals in the world), completely cover the walls like a living mass and their stools (guano) produce such a quantity of ammonia that the atmosphere becomes unbreathable for humans. During his visit, Tuttle – and see he likes bats – almost fainted from the gases and was attacked by the dermestid beetles that feed on the excrement and you laugh at those who protected the secrets of Hamunaptra in The Mummy.
With the biologist, who on one occasion meets a king cobra in a narrow passage in a cave, a trance, we learn things like that bats are fundamental in the dispersal of seeds and in the pollination of many plant species, as well as in the destruction of insects that devastate crops; that they live much longer than other mammals of their size, an average of 20 years; that females are excellent and devoted mothers who adopt orphans, or that although they look alike, it is easy to distinguish bat droppings from mouse droppings: the former are iridescent by the remains of chitin from the insects they consume.
The chapter that I liked the most is, of course, that of the vampires. I couldn’t stop thinking about them as the bat made pass after pass in front of me, stopping at times on a ceiling beam and then launching himself again like a little trapeze artist a la Alfredo Colona. Was he looking at my neck? I wondered, clutching the tennis racket as a stake-type deterrent. Would Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) become a vampire like those who seduce between silks, thighs and fangs, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) in the Dracula of Coppola? (Let’s see if we were lucky!).
The real vampires initially had nothing to do with those of the legends, which predate the discovery, in America – the only continent where they live – of the bats that feed on blood. Upon discovering their existence, the Europeans named them after the monsters of their nightmares. Only three species of bats are blood-sucking (less than 1% of species) and only one, the common vampire (Desmodus rotundus), sucks humans. The other two, the white-winged vampire and the hairy-legged vampire, feed on the blood of birds. Their droppings are different from those of other bats, like reddish black tar. They are viciously persecuted for bleeding cattle and especially for their bad reputation coined in so many Hammer movies: Tutlte describes how even flamethrowers are used against them (what Van Helsing would have given to have one!). However, the naturalist points out that they are quite harmless and intelligent animals, capable of knowing by heart rate if their guests (and it is worth the concept) are asleep. Feeding on the blood of live animals if you are small and do not have the supernatural resources of Dracula is very dangerous, emphasizes Tuttle empathically. The vampire, who keeps his facial hair in constant contact with the prey to detect any movement and escape, generally running more than flying, has to act with great care. Your saliva is a chemical cocktail with anesthetic substances that stimulate bleeding, including the anticoagulant draculina (!).
Merlin Tuttle explains that once, being among the Chamula Indians of Mexico, who told him that “only a madman plays with vampires,” he bit one while untangling it from the fine net with which he had captured it. This is the second real person I know who has been bitten by a vampire. The other is my mother. She was bitten several times as a child on the family’s ranch in Venezuela, on the lips. The servants passed through the rooms at night to drive them away. I would love to be able to talk to her about bats and vampires again now that I have learned so much from Tuttle’s book. The other day, mesmerized by my visitor’s pendulum flight, I imagined my mother returning as a kind Lucy Westenra. Eventually she was bitten by a vampire. I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, still with a strange feeling of happiness, the night vapors had already dissipated, it was dawn and the bat was gone.