Bat. By Tessa Laird. 2018. Reaktion Books. (ISBN:
9781780238944). 208 pp. Softcover, $16.31.
Bats are familiar subjects in adages and aphorisms – blind as a bat . . . like a bat out of hell . . .
right off the bat . . . bats in the belfry. The earth
hosts a large variety of bats. With more than
1300 species, bats comprise one of the most
diverse mammalian groups. Many are insect eaters
and others are fruit eaters, which live primarily in
tropical areas and are often known as flying foxes.
Three species consume blood of other animals.
With wings sometimes described as webbed fingers, bats are the only flying mammals and belong
to the Order Chiroptera (hand wings). Unlike
birds, bats can move their wings independently.
Currently, bat flight is being studied and meticu-
lously analyzed for ideas that could help design
future aircraft. Bats’ relatively short, stumpy legs
have feet with grappling claws that enable them
to hang upside down. Most bat species have a
sonar-like ability to emit high-pitched sounds
whose echoes provide information about their sur-
roundings. This process puzzled scientists for cen-
turies and was not confirmed until 1938. Bats are
social and familial animals, and a mother bat has
the ability to locate her offspring among millions
of infant bats.
Historically, bats have often been associated
with evil, magic, and madness. They don’t have
a particularly good reputation in many cultures.
In 1332 a Frenchwoman, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne, “was publicly burned to death because
‘crowds of bats’ were seen about her house and
garden.” The Bible, in Leviticus 11:19, warns that
bats are among the unclean birds not to be eaten.
In European art and literature, bats often had a
satanic association. Scenic art including bats,
painted by artists such as Albrecht Dürer and
Francisco Goya, portray the bat as being associated with the “darker forces of life.” Literary works
by Francis Bacon and William Blake also portray
bats negatively. And, of course, Bram Stoker’s
novel Dracula, though more related to wolves,
has a great association with blood-feeding
Though mostly associated with evil, in many
instances bats are acclaimed. A seventeenth-century royal physician of England and France
concocted a “Balsam of Bats,” using bats, earthworms, stag marrow, and a few other less-than-delightful ingredients to cure hypochondria. In
Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel, a ghostly spirit
who interacts with other creatures of the natural
world, sings a song whose last line reveals that
“on the bat’s back I do fly after summer merrily.”
The Chinese and Japanese use bat imagery in art,
including commercial art, where bats have been
used to sell fireworks, matches, and cigarettes.
Japan’s oldest cigarette brand, Golden Bat, still
retains the colorful bat image after more than
100 years. The popular Strauss opera Die Fleder-
maus (The Bat) features a character costumed as
There is much more to learn in this captivating volume. Some examples are the discussions
of the complex evolution of bats, the account of
how echolocation was established, including the
bizarre experiments of Italian biologist Lazzaro
Spallanzani, how Batman rose to fame, the comparison of bat flight and Star Wars, and the ideas
that philosophers have about bats, including
Thomas Nagel’s essay on consciousness, “What
Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
Readers will also learn how bat guano was
used in combat during the Civil War and how
President Franklin Roosevelt endorsed a bizarre
project to develop “Bat Bombs,” weapons using
live bats, to fight the Japanese in World War II.
Also depicted is the p’ea (flying fox), an excruciating Samoan coming-of-age ritual for men that
involves imprinting their bodies from the hips
to the knees with a traditional tattoo. An interesting story of British artist Jeremy Deller, whose
studio bears the Post-it note message “BATS
MATTER,” reveals his idea that humans can learn
from bats because “they manage to live together
in great numbers in relative peace.”
Part of Reaktion Books’ ambitious Animal
series, which presents various animals from a
natural and cultural history perspective, this
exhaustively researched volume is appropriate
for college or advanced high school readers. It
would be a valuable addition to a classroom
library. Profusely illustrated with captivating
photographs, it also includes a timeline of the
bat, extensive endnote documentation of the
text, a bibliography, a list of associations and
websites, and an index.
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 4, pp. 295–298, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.4.295.
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