My Word: Going batty in times of corona and politicking

I’m pleased to give the bats some good press for a change.

ONE OF THE Tel Aviv University researchers holds an Egyptian fruit bat last year. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
ONE OF THE Tel Aviv University researchers holds an Egyptian fruit bat last year.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
As research papers go it shattered stereotypes rather than being earth-shattering but it grabbed my attention. Earlier this month a press release announced, “Researchers at Tel Aviv University: Bats navigate just like humans, using their excellent eyesight and cognitive map.” There goes the phrase “blind as a bat” for a start.
Although much-maligned, bats have always fascinated me – and not just for their ability to sleep upside down. My eyesight is abominable; I rely on cognitive dissonance rather than a cognitive map to get me through life and my sense of direction is so bad that calling me “navigationally-challenged” is flattering.
Although – like the vast majority of people – I like to help, I have always dreaded what happens when tourists make the mistake of asking me for directions and I make the mistake of giving them. (Oh, for a chance of bumping into tourists in Jerusalem now.)
The story of the Israeli bats took flight and became the cover story of the prestigious Science journal. The TAU researchers – Prof. Yossi Yovel, together with students Amitai Katz, Lee Harten, Aya Goldstein and Michal Handel from the Sensory Perception and Cognition Laboratory at the Department of Zoology – took 22 fruit bats under their wing, as it were, and tracked them as they scoured the city for food.
The surprising results, in their words: “Fruit bats, just like humans, build a visual cognitive map of the space around them, making use of conspicuous landmarks. In this case, bat pups from Tel Aviv University came to know the city by looking for large, unique structures such as the Azrieli Towers, the Dizengoff Center etc.”
This is particularly impressive for someone like me. I can get lost in the neighborhood where I have lived for more than 20 years and I can barely find my way out of the Tel Aviv bus station, let alone navigate the rest of the metropolis. And that’s with Waze and Google Maps.
“How animals are able to navigate over long distances is an ancient riddle,” says Prof. Yovel in the press material. “Bats are considered world champions of navigation: They fly dozens of kilometers in just a few hours, and then come back to the starting point. For this study we used tiny GPS devices – the smallest in the world, developed by our team, in an experiment never attempted before: tracking bat pups from the moment they spread their wings until they reach maturity, in order to understand how their navigation capabilities develop...
“The results show that Tel Aviv bats navigate the space around them in much the same way as the city’s human inhabitants. Bats use their sonar to navigate over short distances – near a tree, for example,” says Yovel. “The sonar doesn’t work for greater distances. For this, fruit-bats use their vision. Altogether we mapped about 2,000 bat flight-nights in Tel Aviv. We found that bats construct a mental map: They learn to identify and use salient visual landmarks ... The most distinct proof of this map lies in their ability to perform shortcuts.
“Like humans, bats at some stage get from one point to another via direct new routes not previously taken. Since we knew the flight history of each bat since infancy, we could always tell when a specific bat took a certain shortcut for the first time. We discovered that when taking new, unknown routes the bats flew above the buildings.” This was another sign that they were using the landmarks.
By this stage in the report, I was slightly jealous of both the bats and the researchers. My attempts at taking shortcuts are usually so disastrous that I avoid them. Instead, I compensate by giving myself plenty of time to get from Point A to Point B via the slow, scenic route.
I’m pleased to give the bats some good press for a change. These poor creatures have a serious public relations problem. Most recently, of course, they have been blamed as being the source of the outbreak of COVID-19. I think the fault lies not with the wild, flying mammals but those who trap and eat them. Ultimately, research into bats can teach us not only about navigational skills but perhaps also why it is that bats are themselves immune to the viruses they carry. That’s a good enough reason to bat for them.
DOING SOME reflection that comes so naturally in the coronavirus era, I realize that I owe an apology to a small embattled country: Taiwan. In fact, I think the whole world owes Taiwan an apology, but I’ll start.
I have been lucky enough to travel to the Republic of China three times, most recently in 2016 for the inauguration of the first term in office of President Tsai Ing-wen. Following each enjoyable visit I joked about what seemed to be an obsession with cleanliness. Coming from Israel, it seemed strange that I could be required to wash my hands before entering a government office but my bag was not checked by security. People on the streets wear masks as a matter of course and an announcement at the train station informs travelers on the escalators that they should “Hold on to handrails. They’ve been disinfected.”
I’m not laughing anymore. Taiwan so far has provided a good example of how to prevent the spread of coronavirus and limit fatalities – fewer than 10 out of a population of more than 23,810,000 – without causing economic ruin. We could all learn from their experience. If given the chance. Taiwan is not a member of the WHO. The world body does not recognize Taiwan because of the small, democratic republic’s insistence on maintaining its sovereignty. Tsai has made it clear she would not accept China’s “One Country, Two Systems” principle. If you want to understand why, look no further than what is happening in Hong Kong. Despite the principle of autonomy, China last month imposed a wide-ranging “security law” that could destroy freedom of speech and the right to protest and see some Hong Kong residents being tried on the mainland under the People’s Republic criminal law system that leaves no room for dissent.
Getting back to the bats – forgive me for the detour – I found myself singing: “Do you know where you’re going to?” – philosophizing and anthropomorphizing.
As the Mishna teaches us: “Da me’ayin bata, u’l’an ata holech; v’lifnei mi ata atid liten din veheshbon.” “Know from where you come and where you are going; and before whom you will give an account and a reckoning.” It’s a sentence recited at Jewish funerals where it resonates as a warning among the mourners. But it’s about life, not death, and my son’s high school used it as its graduation theme last summer (which now seems a long time ago.)
During the coronavirus crisis, it is clear that the government has lost sight of the need to plan and was always weak on accountability. You can’t open and close schools, businesses, public transport, restaurants, sport facilities and more from one minute to the next without some kind of fallout. Even Israelis – famous for their ability to improvise – need a certain stability and a minimum amount of time to prepare. If anything was “batty” it was releasing what was meant to be a comprehensive economic plan one day; adding a promise of monetary handouts to all a few days later; and then backtracking on that too. Government rulings should not resemble the proverbial bats in a belfry.
As human beings – without the benefit of a bat’s-eye view – we need to know when to ask directions – and whom to ask. It’s not a sign of weakness.
Above all, we need to know when we’re safe and when to get away from danger as fast as a bat out of you know where.

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