the bat experiments

The world has far more bats than most people realize.  In fact, about a quarter of all mammal species–some eleven hundred in all–are bats.  They range in size from tiny bumblebee bats, which really are no bigger than bumblebees and therefore are the smallest of all mammals, up to the magnificent flying foxes of Australia and south Asia, which can have wingspans of six feet.

At times in the past attempts have been made to capitalize on bats’ special qualities.  In the Second World War, the American military invested a great deal of time and money in an extraordinary plan to arm bats with tiny incendiary bombs and to release them in vast numbers–as many as a million at a time–from planes over Japan.  The idea was that the bats would roost in eaves and roof spaces, and that soon afterward tiny detonators on timers would go off and they would burst into flames, causing hundreds of thousands of fires.

Creating sufficiently tiny bombs and timers required a great deal of experiment and ingenuity, but finally in the spring of 1943 work had progressed sufficiently that a trial was set to take place at Muroc Lake, California.  It would be putting it mildly to say that matters didn’t go quite to plan.  Remarkably for an experiment, the bats were fully armed with live bomblets when released.  This proved not to be a good idea.  The bats failed to light on any of the designated targets, but did destroy all the hangars and most of the storage buildings at the Muroc Lake airport, as well as an army general’s car.  The general’s report on the day’s events must have made interesting reading.  In any case, the program was canceled soon afterward.

A rather less harebrained, but ultimately no more successful, plan to make use of bats was conceived by a Dr. Charles A. R. Campbell of Tulane University Medical School.  Campbell’s idea was to build giant “bat towers,” where bats would roost and breed, and then go out to eat mosquitoes.    This, Campbell believed, would substantially reduce malaria and also provide guano in commercially worthwhile quantities.  Several of the towers were built, and some actually still stand, if precariously, but they never worked.  Bats, it turns out, don’t like to be told where to live.

. . . Merlin D. Tuttle, America’s leading bat authority and founder of Bat Conservational International, a charity for bats, related a case, reported in The New Yorker in 1988, in which public health officials in Texas told a farmer that if he didn’t kill the bats in a cave on his land, he and his family and their livestock would be at grave risk of contracting rabies.  At their instructions, the farmer filled the cave with kerosene and lit it.  The conflagration killed about a quarter of a million bats.  When Tuttle interviewed the farmer later, he asked him how long his family had owned the property.  About a century, the farmer replied.  And in all that time, Tuttle went on, had they ever been troubled by rabies?  No, the farmer responded.

“And when I explained to him the value of the bats and what he’d done, he actually broke down and cried,” Tuttle said.  In fact, as Tuttle pointed out, “more people die of food poisoning at church picnics annually than have died in all history from contact with bats.”

– At Home A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson


3 thoughts on “the bat experiments

  1. Fascinating! I recently read a steampunk novel that’s a sort of techno-fantasy version of World War II, and in it bats were successfully employed in a similar way. I had no idea anyone had actually tried anything like this.

  2. Isn’t this amazing? Good ‘fodder’ for a book!

    Bill Bryson’s book At Home A Short History of Private Life is full of amazing and interesting facts and he writes about everything with a tongue-in-cheek humor. An excellent read!

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