A hand colored wood cut illustration of a bat with outstretched wings.

Bats in the Stacks

By Krista Stracka~

In old tales and new, bats are associated with shapeshifting vampires, crafty witches, and demons of the underworld. This dark and spooky image has made the bat an essential symbol of Halloween, its silhouette found carved into pumpkins and decorating windows each season. Hidden under this cloak of myth and mystery is a fascinating little mammal that is often feared and underappreciated despite the vital role they play in our ecosystems and even in human health.

Hundreds of plants depend on the pollination, seed-dispersal, and insect control of bats. From these bat-dependent plants, about eighty different medicines have been developed. Research conducted on bats has contributed to a long list of advancements in science and medicine, including new ultrasound technologies. Study of bats can be tricky due to their nocturnal nature and small size, but many researchers have taken on the challenge. This Halloween, we have selected two examples from the collection on natural history in honor of the helpful bat, showcasing early efforts by naturalists to describe, classify, and identify different species.

Considered one of the first modern zoological works, naturalist and physician Conrad Gessner’s “Historiae Animalium” (Studies on Animals) is a five-volume encyclopedic work in which he sought to describe all known animals. Influenced by Artistotle’s system of classification, Gessner divided animals into groups based on movement and habitat. The bat (“Vespertilio”) is found in the third volume and is grouped together with birds, although Gessner described it as an intermediate animal between a bird and a mouse. Bats were not classed as mammals in the order Chiroptera (meaning “hand wing”) until the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Today, over 1,300 species of bats are known to exist around the world, forty-seven of which are native to North America. In 1837, when William Cooper set out to “lay the groundwork” to identify all bat species in the United States, only twenty-four had been identified. Cooper was an American naturalist and co-founder of the New York Lyceum of History (later known as the New York Academy of Sciences).  Researches on the Cheiroptera of the United States includes three papers authored by Cooper, offering insights into the challenges faced by researchers when identifying or distinguishing between different species.

We have studied bats for centuries and still have much to learn. Current studies are using early bat specimens preserved by museums to find ways to minimize White Nose Syndrome, a fungal pathogen that is devastating bat populations in North America. On this final day of  #BatWeek keep an eye out for these fascinating creatures as you make your rounds this Halloween evening. And thank the bat for your chocolate treats and pumpkin spice (both bat-dependent recipes!)

Portrait of Krista StrackaKrista Stracka is a Rare Book Cataloger for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

3 comments

  1. Appropriate story for Halloween!Chicago Museum of Science has a nice exhibit for them.They are excellent at controlling mosquitos.

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