My visit to Oakland Unversity and the Bat Zone

I had a lovely visit to Oakland University in Michigan, thanks largely to my host, Todd Shackleford, the students in evolutionary psychology, and the psychology honor association, which helped sponsor my visit.

Photos of seminars and academics aren’t very thrilling, but Oakland University has one standout attraction: Meadow Brook Hall, an 80-room mansion built by the widow of John Dodge. Yes, that’s the Dodge who gave his name to the automobile, and who became immensely wealthy. On his huge estate, which he donated to become the grounds of Oakland College, his widow (Matilda Dodge Wilson) built an 80-room Tudor Revival mansion that now serves as a conference center for the university.

It’s huge, especially considering that only two people lived there (the couple had no children), and one of the features is the elaborate brickwork in the chimneys, no two of which are alike.

Dodge home

After my seminar was over, and on the way to the airport, we stopped for a few hours in the Bat Zone, part of the Cranbrook Institute for Science. Part of the Institute is a building housing the Organization for Bat Conservation, run by Rob Mies and a staff of wonderful, caring assistants.

The OBC is there to house injured bats (and a few other critters) that couldn’t make it in the wild, do research on some of them (especially the vampire bats), and engage in outreach to dispel the bad image of this wonderful group of mammals.

Bat facility

Rob gave several of us a two-hour tour. We began with the non-bats, including this tame striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), which was housed in a large cage with a sloth.  It was descented, and so I was able to pick it up and cuddle it.  Skunks make nice pets (I had one for six years): they can be litter-trained, are affectionate, and are complete omnivores. This one didn’t have the full white striping down his back.

Holding skunk

Look at that adorable face!

Skunk head

One of America’s cutest rodents, the flying squirrel (probably the northern flying squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus). They’re nocturnal, which explains their large liquid eyes, enhancing their cuteness.

Flying squirrel

As you probably know, they have large skin folds on their sides, which can be stretched out to help them glide from tree to tree. Rob demonstrates this here:

Sqrl belly flap

Here’s a photo from Wikipedia showing them in action, with the skin folds acting as airfoils. Notice that the tail is stuck out to act as an additional airfoil.


The flat, brushy tail, besides adding gliding capacity, also helps the animal to steer and acts as a brake when it’s about to land.

squirrel tail

x got to feed grapes to a sloth; I believe this is the two-toed sloth (Choleopus spp.), but I’m sure a reader will correct me if I’m wrong.

Feeding sloth

An owl; again, I’m not sure of the species. Like most animals at the facility, it was injured and couldn’t be returned to the wild.  The animals do get awesome care, though, as I saw for myself. They get good food, wonderful vet care, and lots of attention.


Two flying foxes, which are frugivorous (fruit-eating). It is amazing to me that  mammals evolved the ability to fly by turning their forelimbs into wings. I don’t remember the species (I was too excited watching them and taking pictures and movies to record species names), but I’m sure a reader will enlighten me about this and the other unidentified species in this post.

Flying fox

Two beautiful golden flying foxes. Again, I need a species identification.

Flyng foxes

Some unidentified leaf-nosed bats who liked to hang out in a cylinder lined with mesh.

Bats in a tube

They take great care to make good noms for all the animals. The frugivorous bats get cut-up apples and bananas, and also drink weak green tea instead of water because it’s better for their health.

Bat noms

Fruit bat nomming a banana.

Fruit bat nomming

Many bats have harems, which means that other males are constantly trying to horn in on the alpha male. In such a case of male-male competition, it pays to produce lots of sperm, not only to service many females, but also to displace the sperm of previously-mating males who may engage in sneaky copulation.

Look at the testes on this fruit bat. That’s right: those are balls! This bat is well hung in both senses of the word.

Well hung bat

A big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), an insectivore from North America. It’s so ugly that it’s cute. I have a wonderful movie, which I’ll post later, showing the use of a converter box that makes the ultrasonic echolocation “clicks” audible. This injured bat would click when it was moved, but not when held stationary in the hand.

Big brown bat

Everybody’s go-to bat: the vampire bat. There are three species; this, I think, is the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), which ranges from Mexico to South America. It makes its living, of course, by biting other creatures (this species specializes on mammals, making it a pest in cattle country) and lapping up the blood. The bats are reported to have a form of reciprocal altruism (regurgitating blood to each other, since a bat can’t live more than two days without a blood meal), and this colony contains uninjured animals whose social behavior is being studied by a friend of mine, Jerry Wilkinson at the University of Maryland.

Vampire bats

This one shows the sharp teeth very nicely.  Rob said that he once brought a bat on the Elle Degeneres Show (he appears on t.v. a lot), and it bit him on the hand when he was petting it. He quickly hid his hand so as not to gross out the viewers, but had to admit that the bat “got him.”

Vampire bat 2

Here’s a vampire bat skeleton from Wikipedia, showing those fearsome incisors and canines:


A short National Geographic clip showing the vampire bats in action:

A bat in the hand is worth two in the cage. They’re not large, as you see, but they can inflict a painful bite, ergo the gloves.

Surprisingly, vampire bats can live a long time for a small mammal. There’s one bat in the facility which is more than twenty years old!

Vampire bat 3

Here you can see one of the famous examples of “homology”: the use of similar structures for new evolutionary features. The hand of the ancestor has evolved into wing struts.  The first finger has been converted into a clawed, protruding digit that helps the bats climb and walk, and the other three fingers support the wing. I count only four digits here, though some bats have five.

Vampire bat wing

A generalized bat wing, showing how the ancestral digits have become claws and struts:


A generalized bat wing (hum= humerus, u= ulna, r= radius, c= carpus, ca= calcar, I-V= numbered digits). Adapted from Padian 1985.

Wikipedia tells us how these creatures feed; I didn’t know they used their teeth as razors!

If there is fur on the skin of the host, the common vampire bat uses its canine and cheek teeth like a barber’s blades to shave away the hairs. The bat’s razor-sharp upper incisor teeth then make a 7mm long and 8mm deep cut. The upper incisors lack enamel, which keeps them permanently razor sharp.

The bat’s saliva, left in the victim’s resulting bite wound, has a key function in feeding from the wound. The saliva contains several compounds that prolong bleeding, such as anticoagulants that inhibit blood clotting, and compounds that prevent the constriction of blood vessels near the wound.

Here’s a short National Geographic movie showing the vampires in action on a pig (the narration is a bit cheesy):

The bats are fed with a “blood fountain,” similar to the devices travelling cat owners use to water their moggies. To make sure the blood is as clean as possible, the Bat Zone gets (cow) blood only from kosher or organic farms, ensuring that it’s as free of antibiotics as possible.

blood fountain

Here’s the friendly Rob Mies, director of the Organization for Bat Conservation and our tour guide. Many thanks to him for taking a few hours out of his busy day to show around a group of fascinated biologists. I’ll finish this post with a movie of Rob showing bats on television.

Bat dude

As I get time, I’ll post some of the bat movies I took, which includes Rob explaining what we’re seeing.


  1. lanceleuven
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    What’s going on with that owl’s eye? Was that part of its injury?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I see only one set of talons grasping the perch, perhaps that’s it. Though I’ve see a video of burrowing owls & they stand on the ground on one leg with the other one drawn up & hidden in the feathers. No idea why they do that ~ perhaps to reduce heat loss.

    • Thanny
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      One eye is in light and one is in shadow. Unlike human eyes, where the pupils dilate in lockstep, owl eyes respond to light levels independently.

      • lanceleuven
        Posted April 23, 2013 at 1:50 am | Permalink

        Ah! Fascinating, I had no idea. Thanks for the explanation. Much appreciated.

  2. Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    thank you, thank you 🙂 I loved the skink – & all of them actually. The owl, the bats, the flying foxes of which parts of Australia are particualrly familiar. Sadly, they carry a very nasty & incurable disease.
    And the flying squirrels? Yes, have met them. They are sooooo cute 🙂
    You obviously had a wonderful day 🙂

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Stink, stank, stunk. I think your skink is a skunk.

      I was seriously trying to think how I missed the skink when the vowel movement became clear.

      Leaving now.

  3. nickswearsky
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Love the skunk photos! I used to have one as a pet. They are great animals.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    You have the best job ever! I particularly liked the skunk. I once found a baby skunk sleeping in my yard in the middle of the day. I stood over him looking at him and taking pictures (I knew he was sleeping as he was breathing with his little skunk tummy moving up & down). Later, he just got up and went on his way. He just decided in the middle of the day that it was time for a nap and took one! I would love to have a descented pet one. 🙂

  5. varney33
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful post–THANK YOU!

  6. Posted April 22, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    This is a random question, but do you have any idea how the Cranbrook Institute of Science got its name? I grew up near Cranbrook, BC, but the Institute does not appear to be anywhere near there…

    More to the point, those are some excellent pictures, and skunks are adorable (so long as one isn’t smelling them).

  7. Mark
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Yep. Vampire bat bites are in the manner of a shaving nick or scrape as well. Using upper and lower incisors, the technique opens many surface capillaries to “maximize” bleeding, as anyone who has shaved knows. The bats then lap the blood as a cat laps water from a bowl.

  8. darrelle
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Bats are so interesting. I remember reading a paper once about how bats track moving targets differently than humans and other animals do, similar to the method devised for self guiding missiles.

    Humans and many other animals use a method called “constant bearing” to track moving targets. Bats have evolved a method optimized for tracking erratically moving targets called “parallel navigation.”

    Here is an article about it, with a link to the paper.

    • Posted April 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      Fruit bats can be surprisingly affectionate, with behaviour similar to puppies. They cling to your chest, enjoy being tickled and try to lick your face.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 23, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink


  9. darrelle
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Oh, forgot to mention that the skeleton of the vampire bat, especially the skull, is perfect inspiration for a sci fi horror film.

    • lisa
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      It’s been done. A lot.

  10. Notagod
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I’m concerned that this post isn’t marked NSFC (Not Safe for Christians). They are likely to become over stimulated by the blood fountain.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      ….and the bat genitalia because perhaps the nude bats will lead the human reader to do naughty nude things, which their God spends a lot of time punishing humans for 🙂

  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    It is amazing to me that mammals evolved the ability to fly by turning their forelimbs into wings.

    But of course mammals weren’t the first to do so. Or are you saying it’s more amazing that mammals did it than that birds or pterosaurs did it?

  12. Michael Fisher
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you for a great post. Must have taken ages to put this together.

    “It is amazing to me that mammals evolved the ability to fly by turning their forelimbs into wings”
    Well of course everything about evolution is amazing, but this has I.D. quote-mining potential

  13. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    …his widow (Matilda Dodge Wilson) built an 80-room Tudor Revival mansion that now serves as a conference center for the university.

    It’s huge, especially considering that only two people lived there…

    …the other person presumably being Mr. Wilson. Because if she lived there with Mr. Dodge after becoming his widow, that would be creepy.

  14. Posted April 22, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Great post! Cute skunkie. We get them in the yard too, as they come for the kibble left out for feral cats. Poor pig-blood-fountain!

    • lisa
      Posted April 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      The skunks are cute and usually make good pets, but NOT wild ones. In the South they are one of the most prevalent carrier of rabies, especially in urban and suburban areas. One of the other very prevalent carrier in these areas is, of course, bats. So be sure you know your pet’s medical history. On the other hand, bats are great at controlling mosquitoes (which carry a lot worse diseases; they are far and away the deadliest animal on the planet. I have been told that they are responsible for 20% of all human deaths annually, but I haven’t checked that statistic lately.) A lot of people keep bat houses in their yards to take advantage of these feeding habits and the bats are very ready to take advantage of free safe living quarters. Isn’t it nice when things work out.

      • Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        Oh, yes, we keep the pets’ vaccines up to date. We can’t control the wild life that venture in, including opossums. We’re now owned by the feral cats, who expect to be fed. 🙂

        • lisa
          Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          In my experience, ALL cats, pets, feral and wild, expect to be fed. Usually RIGHT NOW!

  15. Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    hahaha… and also think naughty thoughts such as that well-hung bat is better endowed than some folks I know….

    • Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      oops… this in reply to Diana at #10…:)

      • lisa
        Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        No problem. I was going to see if I could get the bat’s phone number.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          This is starting to remind me of Ze Frank’s True Facts About the Fruit Bat. Esp where the bats are flashing each other:

          • lisa
            Posted April 23, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

            Must be one of those “guy” things.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Ha ha I thought that reply was for me!

  16. hankstar
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Great pics – nothing better than a backstage pass to a sanctuary. When my mother worked at a wildlife park here in Oz we’d often look after orphaned baby ‘roos and possums at home and I’d often visit the hospital/nursery section at the park; I still fondly remember cuddling a dingo pup and wondering if I could sneak him home.

    As for that adorable flying squirrel – there just happens to be a marsupial equivalent down here, known as the sugar glider, which has an amazing resemblance. Convergence rules!


  17. Hempenstein
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    In re. auto magnate mansions, there’s a B&B in the Lansing area that was an Oldsmobile exec’s home & also heavy on the English Manor style. We thought about staying there this past winter (if winter is really past tense now) but opted instead for the only other B&B in the Lansing area, which is a llama farm as well, and I recommend that one highly.

  18. Diane G.
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Super post!

  19. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    The upper incisors lack enamel, which keeps them permanently razor sharp

    Not sure that’s well expressed. Aardvark teeth lack enamel too, and are not much good for shaving with, so that can’t be sufficient.

    I think the Desmodus upper incisors have enamel on the front (labial) side only, and are kept sharp by the inner surface being stropped (thegosed) by the lower incisors.

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