The making of bats

The making of bats
is an act
that must take place
in the darkest of spaces;
no full moon,
no starlit skies.

Instead shadows and coal,
Silhouettes and pitch.

Hand to heartwood,
whisper wishes to the owls,
pray they take them, swift winged,
to the goddess of the night.

If you are blessed,
hear the sky fill with wingbeats.

The making of bats is a gift,
goddess given,
not a right.


If you haven’t already, take a look at my post on spontaneous generation and read about some of the ‘recipes’ that were believed to create animals prior to the 17th and 18th centuries.  You’ll realise that my own recipe isn’t that unbelievable!

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Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Whilst my last post focused on sex primarily in a reproductive context, animals have sex for many reasons, just like humans do.  However, “for decades, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists have suppressed inconvenient evidence of homosexual behaviour among the human and nonhuman animals they observed” (Julien Dugnoille).

I’m going to start by looking at same sex activity as it’s one clear thread of evidence that not all animal sex is for reproduction.

There are many more bisexual animals than we tend to think and note I’m saying bisexual because often the animals aren’t solely engaging in same sex activity (which I’m going to say because same sex sex is a mouthful!).  Often, they are also having sex with the opposite sex when the opportunities arise.  The BBC also discusses whether we can claim some animals are homosexual as opposed to bisexual.

Ultimately, these are human enforced labels and as Eric Anderson says:

“Animals don’t do sexual identity.  They just do sex.”

You’ve quite possibly heard about the ‘gay’ penguins in a zoo.  They coupled up and started building their nest and sitting on rocks.  When the zoo realised what was going on, they placed an egg from a female penguin who was struggling to care for it in the nest.  The male penguins successfully incubated and raised the chick.

Same sex dolphins can become partners for life engaging in sexual behaviour, for example males can have a temporary female relationship but will return to the initial male partner afterwards.  Further, two male couples can join up to become a foursome.  One theory is that it helps to have a companion when feeding and resting because they can look out for danger.

Some male greylag geese pair up and when it’s time to raise children, they find a female and raise them together as a trio.  Some don’t but research shows the advantage of a trio; there is better defence against predators, the female has a higher social rank and better chance of survival and the female has more time to devote to her chicks because two males are helping.  After the chicks are raised, the males stay together whilst the female leaves.

In a reverse make up, roughly 2% of oystercatcher breeding groups are made up of two females and one male.  Additionally, up to a quarter of black swan families include parents of the same sex (Scientific American) and in some bird species, males steal eggs from females and raise them in same-sex unions.

Whilst these examples might feel like the exception to the rule, observers have witnessed as many as 1500 species of wild and captive animals engaging in same sex activity.

“Homosexual behaviours is surprisingly common in their animal kingdom.  It may be adaptive- helping animals to get along, maintain fecundity and protect their young.”
– Emily Driscoll, ScientificAmerican.com

Moving on from same sex activity to other non reproductive sexual activity, we find types of fruit bats who engage in oral sex, both female on male and male on female.  There is also masturbation and attempts to mate with the dead…

But what is all this sexual activity about?  Obviously, some sex is about reproduction, but pleasure, bonding and keeping the peace are all reasons for engaging in sex.

Bonding can be important for group species and strong bonds can be very helpful when facing off rivals or seeking protection from other group members.  This bond is also important in maintaining a strong group dynamic and sexual activities can diffuse social tensions.  Another type of bond is that of a parenting couple who may engage in sexual activity to maintain their bond whilst raising their young.

It’s interesting to look at an example, the bonobo.  Bonobos use sex to greet each other, to resolve conflict and for pleasure.  They engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex and penis fencing and are in general a very peaceful species.  Perhaps humans would be more chilled out if we had more sex?

But lets take a second to focus back on masturbation.  As well as humans, many other primates engage in masturbation and this can range from simple stimulation with their hands through to using twigs and leaves and other inanimate objects.  Females have been observed inserting objects into their vaginas and one male orangutan created his own sex toy:

“In one display of sexual ingenuity, a male orangutan created his own ‘sex toy’ using a large leaf, through which he poked a hole with his finger.  He then proceeded to thrust his erect penis through the hole for additional stimulation.”
– Carin Bondar

Sexual activity may also help some animals to reiterate their social hierarchy and may allow individuals to climb the ranks.

In some cases, animals may engage in non reproductive sexual activities such as same sex sex in order to gain sexual experience.  It’s interesting to note that it seems that same sex activity appears to be more common in captivity (although that could just be because its easier to observe), possibly because of a lack of alternative options and greater need for stress release.  In a similar way, you tend to find higher than ‘natural’ rates of same sex activity in prisons.

Time for another example!  Most penguins are not monogamous but it is by turning to Adelie penguins that we really get our eyes opened.  A scientific paper from 1915 had been hidden away for years, labelled not for publication and when it was rediscovered in 2009, it became clear why scientists of the time were reluctant to publicise the observations.

“They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behaviour to gang rape, necrophilia and paedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans’, including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent’.  Strayed chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks’.”
– Lucy Cooke quoting Dr George Murray Levick

Whilst this all sounds incredibly shocking, there is an explanation.  Adelies get together in October, flooded with hormones and only a few weeks to mate.  Young males are inexperienced and don’t really know what to do or how to act and this can lead to some questionable activity…  In their hormonal eyes, a frozen penguin in the right position can look a lot like an interested female… Apparently necrophilia isn’t just restricted to penguins…  Lucy Cooke references pigeons mounting dead house martins, male house sparrows attempting to mate with dead females and the same going on with a couple of pheasants…

In addition to all of this wonderfully interesting and fun goings on, we have those animals which change sex.

Suggested reading:

Scapegoats: Werewolves and Vampires

As well as familiar animals, extinct or not, as scapegoats, we also find supernatural scapegoats.  I’m going to look primarily at werewolves but with a side of vampire and if you’re interested in finding out more about non-animal scapegoats, just take a look at the history of witches.

Whilst I’m focusing on werewolves, it’s important to note that different were animals exist all over the world, generally using the local apex predator as the beast in question.  So we find weretigers, werehyenas and werebears accordingly.  But the werewolf was the European version of this monster.

Werewolves

Were means man so werewolf just means man wolf.  But wolves themselves can be scapegoats.  We see them as devilish, as destructive and as causing chaos.  They are mysterious, unknown, uncontrollable and a threat to humans.  They have also come to be associated with sexual drive, sexual predators and as wild and untameable.  All traits which society doesn’t tend to like, today or in the past.

Monsters, including wereanimals, chart our history of fear.  They act as vessels to place all our worries and fears onto.  Like we saw with the badger, it is easier to have a physical, identifiable thing to use as a scapegoat than it is to live alongside an unknown, unseen monster.

We are terrified of not being at the top of the food chain and apex predators make this threat real and thus wolves and hence werewolves become our enemies.  Werewolves and other wereanimals in particular seem to pose a particular threat because they can move between the civilised society of humans and the wild world of the wolves.  This creates unpredictability, uncertainty and distrust at a time when fear of the unknown was already rife.  In addition to transcending the two halves of the world, werewolves had the addition image problem that the wolf part of them was untameable and hence the werewolf could not guarantee the containment of the beast inside them.  This all echoes a war between instinct and rational, blurring the lines between man and nature at a time when a strict hierarchy was in place.

Aside: because men were higher up that hierarchy, it was seen as more of a tragedy that they were werewolves than for women.  We see female werewolves portrayed as embracing their wolfness whereas male werewolves struggle against it, seeing themselves as victims of fate.  This means female werewolves are less angsty and more comfortable in their wolf skins.  The colonial European discourse also placed non white werewolves as a more natural concept than white male werewolves…  Even in wolf fur you can’t escape racism and sexism…

The earliest known account of werewolves is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, 4000 years ago.  In 8AD, Ovid’s Metamorphoses included a story where a king, Lycaon, was punished by a god and turned into a werewolf:

Lycaon himself ran in terror, and reaching the silent fields howled aloud, frustrated of speech.  Foaming at the mouth, and greedy as ever for killing, he turned against the sheep, still delighting in blood.  His clothes became bristling hair, his arms became legs.  He was a wolf, but kept some vestige of his former shape.  There were the same grey hairs, the same violent face, the same glittering eyes, the same savage image.

Then in around 10th century France we see the tale of little red riding hood which casts the wolf as evil, and in some tellings the wolf is actually a werewolf.  A little later, in 1180s, there is an account from Gerald of Wales about werewolves in Ireland, which included the first known record of a female werewolf.  And also in the 12th century, we have a tale from Marie de France about a werewolf.  However it seems to be around the 14th and 15th century that belief in werewolves took hold in Europe and with it, the idea of the bloodthirsty, ruthless killer who murders for pleasure not for food.  Following this, in the 16th century, we find evidence of werewolf trials.

These were blatant persecutions of the “other”.  Monsters often live at the edge of society, close enough to pose a threat but not so close that people see them as human. This meant that a certain type of person was more at risk of werewolf accusations.  People who were a drain on the village or town were also vulnerable, especially during times of famine and economic difficulties. Old people and disabled people were at risk, as were outsiders who had no emotional connection to the locals.  If you don’t have enough food for your own family, you don’t want any going to the stranger who just rocked up and wanted his share.

As well as a way of scapegoating outsiders, werewolves acted as projections of the inner beast*, projecting your fears about yourself onto someone or something else.  The behaviour of werewolves was considered to be animalistic and this unhuman behaviour in itself was to be feared and not tolerated.  Remember this was a time when humans were trying to control everything around them – we had the witch trials, animals hanged for murder and pests taken to court for eating crops.  In addition to the fear of the uncivilised wolf, the werewolf has the added danger of being part human.  They inhabit a liminal space between man and beast and act as a reminder of how close we all are to animals.  Being neither man nor beast, yet belonging to both, the werewolf traverses boundaries without any consequence and hence traverses the law.

The nature of werewolves has changed over time but in the middle ages they were considered to be shapeshifters who took on the literal form of the wolf and remained responsible for their actions.  We have evidence of a number of werewolf trials and know that on the whole, they took place in isolated communities where there were actual wolves living.  They were often overseen by the church at a time when Christianity was looking for scapegoats…

Werewolves of Poligny, 1521: The account of this was recorded 70 years later so isn’t great from an evidence point of view.  During this trial, 3 people were accused and tortured.  It was said they had magic salve from Satan which turned them into wolves.  Sympathetic wounding, where the wound on a werewolf matched that of the man, was used as evidence.

Giles Garnier, Burgundy, 1573: Something was kiling sheep and children and permission was given to citizens to kill the beast.  Garnier was an outsider, he was disliked, had an unpleasant manner and was poor.  Essentially he ticked all the boxes for a scapegoat.  Claims were made that the wolf looked like Garnier and he later (presumably under torture) confessed.  He claimed that a spectre appeared and offered him a cream which would transform him into a wolf and make it easier for him to hunt.  As Garnier was struggling to provide for his new wife he took the cream and went on to murder at least four children.  The first alleged victim was a 10 year old girl that he strangled.  He then removed her clothes, ate some of her flesh and took some more home to his wife.  The next attack was interrupted by a passerby but the girl in question had already been injured and went on to die several days later.  There were also attacks on boys and Garnier was found guilty of crimes of lycanthropy (werewolfism) and was burned at the stake.  More than 50 witnesses claimed to have seen him carrying out his heinous crimes.

Over time, the idea of a werewolf became one more like a psychological illness.  There was this idea of having fur on the inside so that whilst someone could appear human, they were really living by wolf instincts.  This, from a scapegoat point of view, meant anyone could find themselves labelled as a werewolf.  In particular, outsiders, people who didn’t fit it and people who might be a bit odd could find themselves in trouble.

Today, werewolves are portrayed slightly differently.  The link with the full moon is apparently a recent, cinematic addition as is the contagious bite.  Werewolves are still shown as the underdog, often as subservient or less to the vampires.  Although it is said that only a werewolf can kill a vampire…

Vampires

A lot of the motivations and concepts behind vampires are the same as those for werewolves and other monsters.  They are blamed for misfortune and for terrorising people however they have undergone more transformation over the years than the werewolf.

In the early days of vampires, they weren’t blood suckers, that came in the 19th century, and the main fear was due to their immortality.  They inhabited the borderland between life and death and that terrified people.  They weren;t the handsome and charming creatuers of Bram Stoker’s novel, they were filled with disease and pestilence and thus posed a seemingly real threat to people.  These vampires were said to kill people by spreading illness.

Again, we see trials surrounding alleged vampires with various forms of evidence.  Some was around a lack of expected decay in the corpse and another form of evidence was that an unnatural amount of people got sick shortly after the vampire had died.  Obviously there had to be reasons to suspect a vampire before you dug up a corpse.

Accusations tended to follow when there had been an unusual amount of death.  This made people nervous and they needed something to blame it on so that then it could be controlled.  The corpses became the scapegoats.  This also meant that vampires became associated with the plague, and hence with rats and pests.

Within these trials are a number of other themes; the dead person often died young and unexpectedly in a violent way, they were disliked in life, a high number of ghost sightings after their death, growth of hair and nails, blood at the mouth of the corpse and “wild signs” (an erection).  Bodies were dug up to check for evidence and if a vampire was suspected, a stake was put through them to pin them to the ground or the corpse was burnt.

Then, with the publication of Dracula in 1897 we saw a very different kind of vampire popularised.  This vampire was an outsider at a time when people were starting to move around a bit more and Stoker probably used this to prey on people’s fears and unsettled feelings.  He was also hard to spot, being a well dressed man who was a successful seducer, not at all what you would expect from a vampire if you were familiar with the older versions.  This contributed to the popular image of the vampire as intelligent, clean and well turned out.  Apparently it was also Dracula which solidified the association between vampires and bats although it had been around as an idea previously, Stoker just made it more popular.

The modern vampire appears deceptively human and yet they are without a soul, who knows what they will get up to.. They are still repeatedly cast as other, such as foreigners or sexually deviant creatures but are now more likely to brood than disgust.


*This way of projecting the dark parts of ourselves onto others is something that Jung calls the shadow self and is an interesting topic of its own.