It’s not everybody who can brag that their aunt was one of the world’s foremost authorities on bats’ ovaries. (OK, maybe the only one?) Even my mother, tiring of explaining her physiologist sister’s unique life work, would describe physiology to inquiring friends as something you did to rehabilitate invalids.
My aunt would have agreed that neither bats nor reproductive cycles were popular dinner party topics, and definitely not in combination. Although my aunt was an ardent conservationist who dedicated her retirement years to education about her furry research subjects and their importance to the planet, she originally came to bat research as part of twinning experiments in mammals (and yes, bats are mammals), a topic of great interest at the time to sheep and cattle raisers who would have liked to produce two calves or lambs at a time rather than one. Cattle were too expensive to be research subjects in quantity but bats produce only one offspring per year, making them ideal. As my aunt once observed, “elephants were never considered.”
The estrous cycle of myotis lucifugus, aka the North American Little Brown Bat, was such a common subject at our house that I didn’t think twice about making it the topic of my fifth grade oral science report. It was also the shortest oral report on record. The second Mrs. Novak heard the word “ovary,” I was back in my seat. I still think my classmates would have liked it. I even had pictures!
Among my favorite childhood memories was going on bat collecting expeditions with my aunt to rural areas of Kentucky where farmers were only too happy to have the bats removed from their attics or barns, insisting on gifting her efforts with a bottle of backyard moonshine, which my teetotaler aunt donated to my father, who, after she left, used to clean his shoes.
My ladder-perched aunt would have wasp-protective covering over her head as she expertly netted her elusive targets in the pitch dark then determined their sex (given her half-ounce subjects, I’m guessing this took very good eyes) before passing them down to me to deposit ever so gently (you don’t want to crush their delicate little wings) in either the male or female collection cage.
A side interest she developed was whether bats would fly across water, a homing experiment she undertook by arriving at our family’s summer home on a barrier island five miles off the Jersey shore with 150 bats at 2 a.m. one August morning. We were all routed from bed and arranged in assembly line fashion at the diningroom table where each bat was weighed, banded, and its number recorded, while my father kept mixing more martinis and wondering aloud if this were all a bad dream.
Unfortunately, when we finished at 5 a.m. someone forgot to lock the cage securely and when we awoke later that morning, all 150 bats were loose in the house. Absolutely no one was allowed to open a door until all were accounted for, we kids netting a nickel-per-bat bounty.