Posted by: Elizabeth Barilleaux | October 25, 2010

The Science of Bats, Rats, Snakes and Spiders

Without a doubt, Halloween is my favorite holiday – the one time each year that people take off their masks to reveal the true, quirky self within.  Based on that inspiration, I’d like to begin my blogging series with some factoids about our animal icons of the season: bats, rats, snakes and spiders.

The alarming news – a large, flesh-eating Vampyre bat does exist.  The relieving news – it is not at all interested in you.  Chiroptera (bat) Phyllostomidae (leaf-nosed, New World) Vampyrum spectrum has a wide range of dietary inputs including frogs, snakes, insects, small birds and even other bats – but no humans.  In addition to being a stealthy and efficient hunter, it is also a “family bat.”   Mama Vampyres have one pup each year that they dote on and teach well.  Daddy Vampyres stick around too, and will often wrap up the mama and pup in his wings as they sleep.  It’s the softer side of bloodsucking that gets me every time.

Rats, on the other hand, have more of a “quantity over quality” philosophy.  One mama rat can birth 12 pups at a time and 144 babies in a single year.  Her first offspring can start breeding at two months old.  Female rats go into heat about once every four or five days, so within one year that original mama rat can have 15,000 descendants (more, if the males are real go-getter types).  Obviously, there isn’t much time to spend on education or cuddling in a rat family.

I learned the next little tidbit on summer vacation when visiting the Edisto Island Serpentarium  …Every time a snake sticks out its tongue, it is sampling the air for dozens of separate chemicals that indicate if the time has come to eat, woo or run away.  The tongue is actually a collection device that absorbs molecules onto its moist surface.  The snake then uses a spot on the upper, inside palate called the Jacobson’s organ to perform split-second data analysis. One important chemical on the Serpentes menu is adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine).  Adrenaline is released in mammals as part of a “fight or flight” response, which means that snakes can literally smell fear.  So think twice about poking at it–your friends might think you’re a badass, but that snake knows the real story.

And last but not least – my daughter came home from kindergarten yesterday and announced that there are exactly 1,007 types of spiders.  According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 40,000 species, so her source (or recall) was off by a few.  As an admirer of all things mechanical, I find it intriguing that spiders use hydraulic pressure to extend their eight disturbing appendages.  Jumping spiders can launch themselves 50 times their own length by quickly boosting pressure to their third or fourth pairs of legs.  Once the hydraulic system of any spider shuts down due to death, the legs curl up. Voila!  Intriguing, yes, but still not a compelling reason to keep one around as a pet.

So there you go – a peek into the not-so-well known bits of some “creepy” animal lives.  Here’s hoping that our own Halloween revelations are as thought-provoking – Happy Unmasking Day!


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