Last week, I was invited by the Bat Conservation Trust on a bat walk at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. On the appointed day, it had been raining cats and dogs (not bats – they don't like rain), but as dusk fell, the skies cleared, so things looked promising for bat-spotting. Before we set off, we saw several types of bat close up. I was surprised at how tiny they are – like celebrities, they are much smaller in the flesh.
Bats are a vital part of a healthy environment, and do humans many favours. They eat harmful insects such as mosquitoes and locusts, pollinate tropical fruits, and by ingesting and dispersing seeds, help to replant rainforests. In recent years, bat populations have plummeted, but luckily they inspire a small but passionate following. Members of the Bat Conservation Trust campaign tirelessly for their protection, even manning a 24-hour hotline – if you have a bat problem, a volunteer will give advice or take your injured bat to a bat hospital, one of which is run by the lovely Jenny, in Suffolk.
Jenny's enthusiasm was infectious. Carrying two tiny bats in white-gloved hands, she did the rounds, explaining the many quirks of her charges. We've heard of horse whisperers, but Jenny must surely be a bat whisperer as she has quite a record of nursing bats on the brink back to health.
She said that while she had an affinity with bats and horses, she was less successful with other animals. Apparently this is because there is a genetic similarity between bats and horses. "It's not so surprising when you think of Pegasus, the flying horse," said a lady from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which supports the Bat Trust, and she has a point. Maybe many myths have their roots in a distant reality.
As we chatted, I thought how lovely it must be being the lady from the lottery. "Everywhere you go, you must get the red carpet," I said. "Oh no, it's not like that at all!" she insisted, as supplicants circled her with bat snacks, wine and hopeful smiles.
Then it was time to embark on the bat safari itself. Armed with monitors that made bat noises when bats were in the vicinity, we strolled around the wetlands, our eyes glued to the heavens to spot several different species of bat circling above us.
Intrigued by the bat/horse connection, when I got home I decided to find out more. According to DNA analysis by Dr Norihiro Okada at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, reported in New Scientist in June 2006, bats belong to the group Pegasoferae, which contains horses, cats, dogs, cows, whales and hedgehogs. Previously, bats were thought to be only distant cousins to horses, but Okada's DNA analysis revealed that only cats and dogs are more closely related to horses than bats are – so bats and horses evolved from the same creature. Perhaps, at the dawn of time, a winged horse existed after all.