What better time of year to appreciate bats than late October? But why are these adorable creatures often associated with Halloween? As Batty Boat Cruise season kicks off again on the night before Halloween, student intern Courtney Peirce takes a closer look at the symbolism of the bat and how these flying mammals are anything but evil.
Let’s face it, the bat isn’t the most popular of animal totems. In fact, it’s largely misunderstood and therefore many of its symbolic meanings are inappropriately fear-based. But how can a creature as cute as the bat invoke terror?
It is believed that early pictures of witches revealed them worshiping a horned figure (bat ears?) that sometimes had the wings of a bat. Being nocturnal and associated with drinking blood (of the 1240 species in the world, only three feed on blood), bats have long been synonymous with the vampire, a linkage cemented in the minds of the general public in the late 1800s by Bram Stoker. There is some merit to the fear of disease with bats being linked to very rare cases of the lyssavirus virus (thought it can only be transmitted through bites and scratches). Throw in that they emit high-pitched shrieks (echolocation, to discern where they are in relation to their surroundings) along with the urban legend that they like to entangle themselves in people’s hair, and you arrive at the popular perception that bats are creepy. Of course, anything seemingly evil eventually gets associated with Halloween, and bats are no different.
However, not all cultures view bats as evil. In western African countries bats are sacred animals thought to be the physical manifestation of souls. The Chinese give the bat attributes of longevity and good fortune. And the Native Americans recognized that the bat was highly sensitive to its surroundings and therefore considered it a symbol of intuition, dreaming and vision.
In Australia, bats not only suffer a bad reputation but are subjected to a range of threats. They are victims of human encroachment, pesticides, disease, climate change and unlawful killing. Negative perceptions of the species with the addition of these threats are putting our bats in danger of extinction. Sadly, six bat species are currently listed as threatened and those not yet on the list are showing collapsing distributions and clear declines in numbers.
Though highly unappreciated, the role of bats in our ecosystem is invaluable. They play a vital part in the stabilisation of the numbers of insects that destroy human crops, and facilitate the pollination of a variety of plants essential not only for human health but many other species’ as well.
And in fact, Australian bats could not be further from the likes of the vampire. They are docile, fruit-eating creatures that are known to have a temperament similar to dogs (their young are even called pups). Their beverage of choice is water, and seen up close these flying mammals aren’t terrifying at all – they are quite adorable.
If you’ve taken a Batty Boat Cruise on the Brisbane River, you’ll probably have spent some time with the orphaned baby bats onboard and know this to be true. For those who haven’t yet experienced this 32-year tradition, the new season of the Cruise begins Sunday, 30 October, with a Halloween theme and prizes for the best kids’ costume. Tickets can be purchased here and proceeds go to wildlife conservation in Queensland. Please support the bats this spooky season and help knowledge dispel the myths about these precious and adorable flying mammals.
by Courtney Peirce.