Kathriona Devereux: Why I’m ‘going batty’ about a not so adorable fluffy species

This week Kathriona Devereux  felt a strange connection with a completely different, less adorably fluffy, species - bats!
Kathriona Devereux: Why I’m ‘going batty’ about a not so adorable fluffy species

The common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) a small bat.

IT’S that time of the year again. Adorable balls of yellow fluff have appeared at The Lough, stopping walkers in their tracks and providing hours of free fascination to children.

The arrival of baby goslings, ducklings and sometimes cygnets always reminds me of the birth of my March baby. I used to lap the Lough with my newborn in her sling and admire and coo over the new chicks.

I felt a strange kinship with the mother birds as they protected their babies and hissed away onlookers who got too close. I recognised the same maternal instinct in these beaked mamas as in me — we’re all just trying to raise and protect our kids as best we can.

I felt a strange connection with a completely different, less adorably fluffy, species recently. Bats!

Last summer, we had one bat turn up every evening to feed on our garden’s midges, we christened him Barry the Bat and enjoyed watching his solo acrobatics. Bats hibernate from November to late-March and last week, while I sat eking out the last of the evening sun, I witnessed a highly entertaining display of seven bats swooping and feasting.

They were flitting and turning suddenly and making dramatic dives and generally behaving in a far more energetic and frenzied way than my end-of-the-day energy slump. I watched them, fascinated, pondering the fact that they are mammals just like us.

Bats and humans are similar in lots of ways. Both mammals that have body hair, have two arms, two legs, four fingers, one thumb — their digits are encased in a wing! They breastfeed and mind their offspring to almost adulthood and we share a common ancestor 80 million years ago. 80% of our genes are shared with the genes of bats.

I suspect that my nightly acrobatic visitors are one of the potentially five species coming from the nearby Lough. Bats like living next to bodies of water because they drink a lot of water, especially pregnant and breastfeeding bats, and the water surface is a great source of insects to feed on.

In Cork, The Lough is one of the best places to observe bats skimming the surface for swarms of midges but bat populations can be found along the North and South Channels of the River Lee.

Ireland is home to ten species, Barry the Bat and friends are most likely to be common pipistrelles — zipping around at dusk, catching mosquitoes and midges. One pipistrelle bat can eat over 3,000 midges in a night! I like the idea that bats in my garden are protecting me from the morning discovery that my ankles havw been devoured by mosquitoes the night before.

These bats are sparing me from another dose of antihistamine!

Bats use echolocation to find their dinner. They emit high pitched calls that bounce off objects and back to their ears. They move so fast, up to 15km per hour in the dark, it can be hard to determine what species is nearby.

If I really wanted to confirm Barry the Bat’s species, I could invest in a bat detector to pick up the sound frequencies that the different types emit. Human ears can’t hear them but a bat detector machine can and different frequencies correspond to different types of bat. For example, at 55 Hz you might be hearing a soprano pipistrelle bat, but down around 20Hz it might be a Daubenton bat, which is often found on rivers.

Bats are remarkable mammals in that they live much longer than we would expect for an animal of their size. Some live up to 40 years.

Scientists have been studying the ageing process of bats to try and build a picture of how they age and what is going on in their DNA and their blood that allows them to live longer. It’s partly to do with a thing called ‘telomeres’ — protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. In the nucleus of each of our cells, our DNA is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes.

Our DNA provides the instructions of how our body builds and repairs itself. If you imagine a shoelace as a chromosome, then telomeres are the protective plastic tips at the end of our shoelace that stop the lace from unravelling - the shorter the tips the ‘older’ you are. Bats have very long telomeres which partly explains why they are so long lived.

Bats also have a special DNA repairing mechanism in their blood that acts as a proof reader of their DNA so if there is any damage in their cells they can correct it - this stops them getting cancer.

Irish scientist, Prof. Emma Teeling, has pinpointed which genes in bats serve this function. It turns out they are the same grouping of genes, which when mutated in humans, cause the premature ageing disease progeria. People who suffer from progeria do not have DNA repairing functions in their blueprint and therefore age faster and typically die in their teens from heart disease. It is a very rare condition and scientists are studying it to find a cure and to get further insights to the ageing process.

So along with all their other amazing attributes bats might just hold the secret to slowing the ageing process!

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