Bats, Taxes, and Bananas
For an illustrated version, see pages 19-20 in The Environmentor, vol. 5, no. 5.
Folktale: Bats and Taxes
One day, a mouse came to Bat's house. "I bring a message from the King of the Animals. It's time to pay your taxes to our king!"
"What do you mean, 'our king'?" said Bat. "See my wings? I'm a bird." And he sent the messenger scurrying away.
A few days later, a sparrow arrived with a message from the King of the Birds. "Tax time! Tax time! Time to pay your taxes to our King of the Birds!"
"Nonsense," said Bat, "I'm not a bird. Look at my teeth! Look at my fur! Go away." And that messenger flew off.
But one day it happened that the King of the Animals and the King of the Birds had a meeting to discuss affairs of state. When they realized that Bat had been cheating them both, they sent out warrants to arrest him for tax evasion!
Bat went into hiding.
Now he sleeps all day, and only comes out at night when he is sure that most animals and birds will be asleep.
And he has never paid his taxes.
While Oklahoma bats slept through the cold winter months, something more dangerous than an arrest warrant may have been threatening them. A fungus disease called White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) arrived in the United States ten years ago. It has already killed millions of bats in eastern states and has been found in Oklahoma.
Will it kill our bats? Bats play a very important role in controling night-flying moths, mosquitoes, June bugs etc. One bat can eat 3,000 mosquitoes in a night!
The WNS fungus infects the skin of bats' muzzles and wings while they hibernate in cold damp caves or mines. It seems to disturb their sleep, causing restless behavior that uses up their fat reserves. Without insects to eat in winter, the infected bats can starve to death! Those that survive until spring often have damaged wings and can't fly well to hunt.
What can wildlife biologists do to protect our bats from WNS fungus? They don't dare to fumigate bat caves with toxic fungicide. They can't steam-clean abandoned mines to kill the fungus. But researchers in Missouri are experimenting with a common bacterium that produces volatile (readily evaporating) organic compounds that inhibit fungus growth. Bats treated with these VOCs recovered so completely that they could be released back into the Missouri woods.
The bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, was discovered by researchers at Georgia State University who were trying to delay the ripening and spoilage of fruit on its way to market. They were surprised to find that when they exposed bananas to the VOCs from R. rhodochrous, mold never grew on them. Graduate student Chris Cornelison knew about the White-Nose Syndrome fungus and wondered if the bacterial VOCs that protected bananas, would help the bats too.
First Cornelison showed that the compounds halted WNS fungus in the lab. Then he got help from Bat Conservation International, Georgia State University, US Forest Service, and The Nature Conservancy to test it with bats. The bats recovered!
Now scientists are trying to figure out how to use the bacterial VOCs to protect hibernating bats. They can't just release the bacteria in bat caves: it might have unwanted effects on desirable fungi and other organisms. Careful field studies must be done.
But meanwhile, wildlife biologists can collect sick bats and expose them to the bacterial VOCs during hibernation. Treated bats, with no trace of the fungus, are released in spring.
The research is supported by private donations.
In any case, the bats don't pay any taxes.
Folktale: motif B218.104.22.168 bat flies at night to avoid paying taxes as either bird or animal.
I found variants from Armenia, Sikhim (India), and Altai (Siberia):
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