Are bats birds with fur or dogs with wings?
A household debate, liminal beings, and the cultural impact of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Welcome to October, peeps! If you have a Halloween Friend™ in your world, they’re at the peak of their power this month. They might even like this post because, as we’re about to discuss, bat iconography is well-established a mainstay of everything spooky, scary, and unknown. Send it along if you think they’ll like it!
One more note before we jump into the world of Chiroptera:
The early bird subscription sale was meant to finish on October 1, but I realize that I haven’t published as many posts as I’d planned between the launch of the program and now. You all might not know if you’re ready to commit your hard-earned dollars yet! It’s a big decision!
So. Another month, another round of posts, and way more chances to get in on a subscription deal that lasts forever. The timer is set for November 1!
For transparency’s sake, my plan is to keep the vast majority of posts public for the time being to reach as many people as possible! That’s the point of this whole thing anyway, to create access to science and nature and literature (and internet jokes???) for folks outside of those spaces.
Many thanks to the early bird subscribers! You’ve made my 10 year-old self, who would always be scribbling down ideas for stories, and terrible on-the-nose poetry, absolutely overjoyed to be writing for a living. Don’t forget to reply to these posts with your questions!
I always thought of Sesame Street’s Count von Count as the sure-fire Muppet Halloween Friend™! Turns out, maybe it’s also Kermit! I think Gonzo’s probably in that category, and Animal, too. Any other votes?
And I would be remiss to exclude commentary on a key musical tradition for this most eerie and liminal time of year (and we’ll get to even more liminality in a bit):
Okay this is turning into a Twitter roundup and that’s for ANOTHER POST. We’re here to talk about bats, people!
To all of you Halloween Friends™ out there, it’s your time to shine*! This post goes out to my very own HFs. You know who you are!
*feel the chilling embrace of darkness
You’re about to get a reaaaaally good look at what goes on in my house on a regular basis! The bat talk started when I was researching deepwater exploration for last week’s post about the crumpling power of water.
Looking at 19th century science fiction like Jules Verne’s serial Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and novel Journey to the Center of the Earth led me deeper into the way authors explored the unknown. What began with strange and wonderful deep-sea imaginings started shifting to alien contact (H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds), pandemic-induced dystopia (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man), experimental medical and social ethics (Shelley’s Frankenstein), and the Gothic horror of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Sidebar while we’re on the subject of Frankenstein:
So many of these works used the nocturnal, the darkness-shrouded, and the ominous to point to social or political ideas. But why bats? I couldn’t help but put that one on the back burner.
In a classic writer move, I was falling asleep a few nights later and the loudest, clearest question popped into my head:
What even are bats? Are they birds with fur? Dogs with wings?
I rolled over, made note on my phone and fell asleep wondering where the genes diverged between all of the animals I see in bats. Then in the morning I asked Michelle the same question and she peered over her coffee at me with a perplexed expression on her face.
“They’re rodents, aren’t they?”
She was convinced they were closer to flying rats than flying dogs, if we were going to generalize.
“The skin wings, though, they’re so creepy. Birdlike, but not quite enough.” Something about the pink rat tails and the knuckled, featherless wings tipped the scales into rodentdom.
It’s helpful that our apartment is small enough that at any moment our tandem workstation (I know, I know) can be turned into a fully operational business presentation centre. I fired up my monitor and felt the familiar buzz of needing to prove I’m right. Sorry, Michelle! Love you!
“Listen,” I said, pulling up an image search, “they have snouts and fur, they’re dogs.”
According to educator Mary Jean “Corky” Quirk of NorCal Bats in Sacramento, it’s not surprising that I see them as canine-adjacent.
[I just need to a minute to appreciate her excellent name situation, wow]
She says it’s fairly common for students and teachers alike to be surprised by bats’ sweet, sort of benign appearance. In daylight, bats appear much further from the blood-sucking creature of the night than is perhaps expected:
"When [the students] are able to actually see the bats more closely, they can begin to see what their faces look like. They're much more dog-like than rodent-like."
Corky gets it! But her fellow bat expert Joy O’Keefe, director of the Indiana State University Bat Center, makes an interesting point that pushes both me and Michelle away from winning this debate. Despite being similar in size and appearance, the scientific community is right to separate bats and rodents into different categories as well. It turns out that bats occupy their own unique order based on the sheer number of species within the family Chiroptera:
"When we compare them to, say, rodents, there's not quite as many species, but in terms of diversity of diet and function and form, we see a greater diversity in bats."
Joy takes me down a peg here, and explains that while bats might appear furry and familiar, they’re actually in a completely different genetic superorder from canines, and can’t really be generalized as either.
Bats are so unique and have so many variations that they actually make up about 20% of all mammal species (there are over 1400 distinct bat species)! It’s easy (er, maybe) to see below how bats may have subsumed the characteristics of their genetic ancestors, considering just how far back the split from the rest of the pack is.
Somehow they’re completely removed from birds (no feathers, no beak, no egg-laying), but retain lots of little genetic nuggets from other taxonomic branches (grippy little feet, echolocation, big ol’ chompers) that give them a kind of supernatural, liminal character. Bats are at once their own animal, and also somehow holding steady between many others at the same time. It’s the way they straddle the line between real and mythical that really gets me.
Anyway, more on that in a sec.
This feels like a point in the Nat column, since TAXONOMICALLY bats are one or two steps closer to Carnivora (dogs, etc.) than to Euarchontoglires (rodents etc.). Ah, probably not. Bats are neither dogs nor rodents!
I can’t unilaterally declare victory because I have respect for the science that says neither of us won this one, but I will say that bats remain mysterious figures even after reading so many things about them.
Sure, fine, science wins this one. But I’m now curious about why bats have been such challenging, curiousity-inspiring creatures for millennia.
Outside the better-known western interpretations of bats, they have been represented in traditions all over the world, for ages. China’s reverence for bats comes from a linguistic quirk in which the word for bat sounds just like the word for happiness, so bats have been adopted as a symbol of good luck.
In the Indigenous pre-Columbian Zapotec civilization (700 BCE - 1521 CE) in what is now southern Mexico, a bat god presided over corn and fertility. Death rituals have also been found to be rich with bat symbology in Zapotec culture, with intricate funerary urns and jade masks carved in the bat god’s likeness to accompany the departed into the tomb.
But for those of us who don’t feel so fondly for bats, there’s likely a good reason for it: they’ve long been associated with death, or at least has served as a signal of impending doom.
Political cartoonists have used bat imagery as allegory for looming danger to political stability, as in London’s PUNCH magazine’s 1885 portrayal of the Irish National League:
This one’s a double feature in Scary Bat Ideas, considering the bat is seen poised to impose harm on this helpless lady (aka Britain), plus the parallels drawn by the phrase “The Irish Vampire” that opens a whole other door.
The vast majority of the 1400 bat species don’t actually feed on blood, many prefer insects or fruit, but the idea that bats and vampires are inextricably linked is a fairly new cultural idea, thanks to a few key literary figures.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula popularized the vampire-as-bat concept with descriptions that really aren’t subtle in drawing comparisons between Count Dracula and our nocturnal buddies:
[W]ith his sharp, white teeth, pointed ears, highly-arched nostrils, and cloak spreading out around him like great wings.
Then Stoker adds another layer to the metaphor by having transform into a bat to hover outside people’s windows or stalk the vampire hunters seeking his demise. Stoker also uses Dr. Van Helsing’s character to offer the most vivid descriptions of Count Drac is his winged form, leaning on the bloodthirsty, frenzied characterizations.
Dracula appears rather bat-like in his human form and the story follows his quest to feed on human blood using his fangs. Dracula’s threat is twofold: first, his need to feed is framed as ridding people of their life force, and two, that each vampiric bite turns his victims into vampires themselves.
To date there have been no less than 59 feature film adaptations of the Dracula story since 1920, though the most culturally significant is the 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which has served as the standard for modern interpretations.
To recap, bats = vampires = threat to humanity/innocence/goodness.
There are lots of hypotheses about where Stoker’s ideas about bats and vampires originated, though a primary influence was certainly his contemporary, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic vampire novella Carmilla.
Both authors use similar vampiric symptoms and lean on themes like religious fear, and adherence to strict sexual mores. Beyond Le Fanu, religious lore from the Middle Ages gave Stoker lots to draw from, since much of the prior bat talk leaned heavily into the idea of bats representing the souls of the damned, or those awaiting deliverance to hell.
Since it was thought that bats could not see in daylight, the 13th-century Bestiario moralizzato di Gubbio suggested that it was ‘an emblem of those lost in the darkness of sin, who refuse to show themselves to those who could take care of their souls’.
And not long after Gubbio’s remarks, the connection between the underworld is made even clearer by drawing a direct connection:
Duccio’s Temptation of Christ on the Mount (1308-11) gives the Devil a coat of thick, black fur, membranous wings, pointed ears, a snub nose and hooked heels.
Even though current bat lore might not be as influenced by the religious ideas of the 13th century, there’s still the inherent mystery surrounding bats that lead to their spooky reputation. From Popular Science:
Mark Mirabello, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said nocturnal animals in general may have evoked death because night time is the realm of the dead. "The dead are weakened by light, and daylight in general -- that may be why a bat is often associated with death.”
Steve Siporin, history professor and folklorist at Utah State University, has the skinny on why bats have become a harbinger of all things doom and gloom in our collective imagination, even outside the world of literature.
"All the symbols have to do with death, because it's the death of summer; harvest is coming to an end. That's the origin of symbols like skeletons, and ghosts, and all that."
Siporin goes on:
One of the main themes of Halloween is liminality -- the in-between-ness. It's between one state and another state; between growth and death; between fall and winter, the beginning of the new year. There are all sorts of symbols of that in-between-ness. It occurred to me that one of the things about a bat is it has a liminal kind of quality -- it's a liminal creature. It's a mammal, and mammals generally belong on the ground, they don't fly. It takes part in two different worlds.
It’s October 3, now more than a week into fall but with weather that’s still clinging to the memory of sun-warmed late summer. Our lives are in a bit of a holding pattern. We’re living in two different, competing worlds. I don’t know about you, but it’s tiring as hell.
It really is a liminal time. Go find some decorative gourds, pull out those sweaters and then wait to wear them, crave soup but be too warm to make it, and try to enjoy every moment of this inbetweenness. And, apropos of nothing, maybe cut yourself some slack when you feel like you should be accomplishing more.
Do it for the bats. They sleep all day and munch on finger food.
That’s it for this time! Here’s my favourite bat video, about a tiny rescued fruit bat named Lil’ Drac who learns to fly.
Emotional piano music version:
Eye of the Tiger version: