Tuesday, 25 November 2008

El Duende, Tomb Bats and Handling the Hairy-legged Vampire

With a title like that, perhaps I should have published this at Halloween! But this is the time of year when relatives (or Mr Claus, depending on your age-group) are liable to ask that awful question "What would you like for Christmas?" Having dispensed with the obvious, but hopeless answers of a Jaguar XK120, a Hebridean island and an unlimited research budget (why is it only kids get their heartfelt desires at Christmas?) we then have the nightmare problem of coming up with something we actually want for Christmas that costs under twenty quid. And if we don't come up with something pretty damn fast the result will inevitably be socks, a jumper or one of those naff coffee table wildlife books with lots of pretty pictures and no real content.

Given that last thought, it occurred to me to share my thoughts on three bat books I have come across recently. They are out of the mainstream but they're a good read and are actually in print, unlike some books which should be but aren't (yes, I mean you, Collins New Naturalist - get your fingers out and reprint John Altringham's book.)

The first is the inspiring and impressive "A Bat Man in the Tropics: Chasing El Duende" by Theodore H. Fleming. Fleming has spent his entire adult life studying bats in Central America and Australia. I find it hard to get into books which simply describe impressive wild animals I am unlikely to ever see. Fleming doesn't do that: this is a very readable book which describes his life's work in a very human way. You really feel you're with him, up to your ears in mud and insects, studying pollinating bats. If you want something to immerse yourself in, rather than watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Boxing Day, this is it.

Incidentally, "El Duende" is Spanish for ghost or hobgoblin, which seems quite appropriate, but Fleming uses it as a metaphor for the seach for knowledge about bats, which is deeper but also appropriate.
Next comes a small book called simply "Bats in Roofs". I have to admit I bought this without realising it's provenance. It was published by the Bat Interest Group of Kwazulu-Natal (for those who had the misfortune to be educated instead of going to school, that's in South Africa). This book describes the bat species found in the group's part of Africa, but what fascinates me is the detailed information about bat management techniques used there. They have similar bat-work problems to us in the UK (hence the name of the book), but with interesting twists. For example, the structure of their buildings are very different and their bat species occupy a broader range of niches than ours.

A common problem there is the occupation of verandahs by Epauletted Fruit Bats and Mauritian Tomb Bats (they have great common names for their bats), with the accompanying mess caused by loose droppings. And the solution? A helium balloon tethered on the verandah is apparently an effective deterrent! For anyone involved in practical bat work in the UK, this book offers a new angle on the subject. What is more it's only 44 pages long, so it lies within the pocket of your younger relatives. If they're anything like mine, they'll have found it on-line, ordered it and returned to their Playstations before you've even powered up your laptop.

My final suggestion is "Expedition Field Techniques: Bats". Written by Kate Barlow (now of BCT), this is a practical guide to carrying out field work with bats abroad. It's very comprehensive: for example, I opened it at random and found a picture entitled "Handling a hairy-legged Vampire Bat caught in Columbia". So if you'd like to know how to handle a Hairy-legged Vampire Bat in Columbia, this is the book for you. It is a concisely written manual which is aimed at the professional zoologist and, like the other two books, it throws an intriguing light on the practical study of bat ecology around the world. I find that dipping into it occasionally puts a new angle on British bat work and sometimes puts the difficulties of studying bats in the UK into context.

So, those are my suggestions. If you get a stripey jumper or a pair of furry slippers for Christmas, don't say you weren't warned.
  • "A Bat Man in the Tropics: Chasing El Duende" by Theodore H. Fleming is published by the University of California Press (2003)
  • "Bats in Roofs" by The Bat Interest Group of Kwazulu-Natal is published by Flame Tree Media (2007)
  • "Expedition Field Techniques: Bats" by Kate Barlow is published by the Expedition Advisory Centre of the Royal Georgraphical Society (1999)

My website: http://www.plecotus.co.uk/

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