Into the Night
Tales of Nocturnal
Rick A. Adams,
(University Press of Colorado)
It's called Into the Night, but perhaps it would be better titled Scientific Lunatics Abroad Studying Packrats, Fruitbats, and Walking Batfish.
You may recall that centuries ago people's futures were foretold by eviscerating a chicken and reading the gizzards. Here we travel all the way to Africa to study bat-poop --- not to look into the future, but to understand the present. Frank Bonaccorso's assignment has to do with a recent lack of figs in the countryside near the Shingwedzi River water basin in South Africa. He tracks down fruitbats and a sycamore --- a fig-tree sycamore. There should be figs on it, no?
However, during times of meteorological uproar --- read global warming --- the figs and even the fig-trees disappear, and the question becomes what's going to happen to the many animals dependent on it. Since fruitbats are expert disseminators of the seed of the syconium, are they doing their jobs by eating the figs, spreading their poop (and fig seeds) all about Kruger National Park? And are the other animals coöperating?
For instance, are fig seedlings are being trampled to death by lions, leopards, African buffalo, rhinos, or the "120,000 impala, 30,000 zebra, or 13,000 elephants, or various other grazers and browsers?" How can we make sure that enough new fruiting sycamores appear so that all the animals survive? Thus Bonaccorso's research involving the "Walberg's" and "Peter's" bats of this area.And what did he find out? By capturing fruitbats with what they call mist nets, and then by hanging tiny transmitters from their little necks and then letting them go (and keeping his fingers out of the way: bats bite) --- they discover that fruitbats (1) single out a fig by smell, (2) "tug it off the tree by dropping into flight" and (3) will perch in a nearby tree to eat it. The bats will squeeze out the juices and a few seeds and spit out a "spat of fibre and seeds." Message: at night don't hang around a fig tree in the rest stop Babalala (say the word out loud --- it sounds like something out of Little Richard) at Kruger National Park. Else you'll get spat on. By bats.
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Many of the eight other contributors to Into the Night have missions as zany as this one.
Rick Adams, the editor, is also a bat head, specializing in Rocky Mountain bats. Sometimes, as he writes, we wonder what side he's on. For example, he says that all mammals are "clever, manipulative, and sneaky," not underlining the fact that he is a mammal too. You and me too.
He suspects that most of the people around him think that he's that "nutty bat biologist from Colorado" --- he teaches at University of North Colorado --- but he also appears to have elements of the mystic in his soul.
After observing a red fox that was was observing Adams and one of his assistants at their batwork, he tells us that he would love to "record this animal's reactions" as it "sits in the dark for more than an hour, attentively watching us as we capture, mark, and release bats." What are these dingbats up to, anyway?
He also claims that in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, there are "buildings that mysteriously become unlocked after being secured at dusk, lights [are] seen in building windows, even though there is no electricity in them." He also reports that there are, at times, "the clear sound of someone walking across floorboards in a vacant facility."
The good doctor says he's interested in "adult little brown bats" --- but his vision of the fox (and the deserted buildings of Ft. Laramie) does make one wonder about the content of the air there in Niwot Ridge, Colorado.
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In all, what are these men and women seeking more than another grant from the NSF and a free night out on the mountains? We come to suspect the lure of getting out of the classroom and, in the process, evading stomping elephants, avoiding being eaten by lions, and --- when scuba-diving in the Galapagos --- looking down at a school of hammer-head sharks and instead of getting the hell out of there, diving down through the hundreds of them, hoping not to be the main course at their dinner party.
Christina Allen, who reports on this shark adventure, goes on to tell of her visit with a pack of eagle rays. These are not birds who have taken to the surf. Rather, they are like the manta ray: black and white speckled underwater space creatures from Mars.
"When they are directly overhead, I kick my fins hard, and the next thing I know, I am right in the middle of the group. They are above me, below me, and to each side ... Together, we glide through the water, flying. I'm breathing heavily and feeling rather Zen, losing myself in the moment."
Just as I feel I am becoming a spotted eagle ray, the low-air alarm on my air gauge goes off, beeping madly. I have been so focused on the rays, so excited to be amid them, that without even realizing it, I've followed them down to sixty feet!
Dr. Allen's most singular find is one of the ugliest beasts in all of creaturedom ... the walking batfish. I'm telling you, these biologists are given to an odd form of motherlove. Only a scientist could love these painted-up toddlers.
Allen tells us that it's a "would-be fish that looks like its evolution was arrested between frog and goblin,"
a relative of a group of fishes called the frogfishes. It hobbles along the sand and rubble of the ocean bottom on prehistoric-looking leg-fins, and only when its life is threatened does it attempt a herky-jerky version of swimming that reminds me of Frankenstein.
"On its wide alien head, I kid you not, is a big fleshy horn that sticks straight forward, like it's jousting with a moldy sponge for a sword. ... To top off this ridiculous ensemble, the grumpy mouth is framed in bright red lipstick."
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Into the Night is a must for people like you and me who don't know jackshit (or batshit) about the ecological drives of these overeducated adults. And at the top of the heap, as far as I am concerned, for sheer animal wit is Scott C. Pedersen. We find him in Montserrat, British West Indies.
In 1993, he took on a job as a "gross anatomist" at the medical school there. He's apparently another of the cadre of the batminded. One night, en route through Antigua, he spots a Velvety Mastiff bat and some Brazilian free-tailed bats.
Pedersen goes on to explore the night-life on Montserrat, and I don't mean the low-life bars, where you and I would be hanging out (although he doesn't flinch at those, either). His venues are the nests of tree frogs, marine toads, night herons, along with "large hand-sized moths, and small gray rats."
One noise attracted him; the locals told him it was a "mountain chicken:" --- no barnyard egg-layer at all, but a certain type of frog Leptodactyllus fallax --- that clucks. They grow to twenty inches stretched out, and are about as attractive as the walking batfish.
Pedersen tells us that the frog used to thrive on the five major islands of the Lesser Antilles, but "It is now restricted to the islands of Montserrat and Dominica."
It is absent from the intervening French island of Guadeloupe, presumably because of the French penchant for eating the damndest things.
They are a protected species, but when our biologists find themselves in a local restaurant, they come across mountain chicken on the menu. "I was having a very difficult time wrapping my brain around how exactly the chef was going to wrestle a gigantic frog that wouldn't stop clucking into his repertoire." His partner pointed out to the waitress that the frogs were now getting rather rare on the island: "I'm not sure we should be eating an endangered species ... Why are they on the menu?"
The waitress responded, "Oh, that's okay, we only serve those that are already dead."
Pedersen tells us that he wasn't sure if they were getting road-kill, "or maybe there was some black-market amphibian abattoir just down the back alley that delivered fresh frog meat to this restaurant on the sly."
The two of them chose to eat lobster, and we've always wondered who was the daring freak who ate the very first lobster? Does this mean that perhaps the common walking batfish, as homely as the lobster and the mountain chicken, are all endangered? Would you in a hundred years want to eat one of these bottom-crawling slugs [See Fig 1 above] ... even garnished with butter and lemon and beer and lots of cheer on the side?
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I think you can't go wrong with Into the Night. To show you what jokers these biologists are, here's a sample quote from the very early pages of the chapter "Volcanos and Fruit Bats: Fear and Loafing on Montserrat."
Pedersen quotes from his old field notes, scientist's notebooks being like gold --- the nitty-gritty of their on-location work to prove their labors. They are preserved, sent off to grant-making organizations as well as the universities that give them time off to beer and loaf "in the field."
The first couple of pages present a remarkable multilayered tapestry, replete with coffee-cup rings; subsequent pages are partially laminated together by what appear to be sweat rings left behind by beer bottles (undoubtedly Carib lager --- the Beer of the Caribbean). Within the first few pages, I find a half dozen mosquito carcasses with blood and guts splayed around their mummified remains in bleak testament to their last moments and their last meal ... me, if memory serves. Several business cards, tax stamps, expired driver's licenses, and peeled-off beer labels are stapled haphazardly along the page margins --- the staples exhibiting a crusty patina of rust here and there. Today, my students tease me that my field notes resemble papier-mâché sculptures decorated with my unintelligible ink-blotchy Sanskrit. But my field notes are historic artifacts, testimony to my experience on Monsterrat.