Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A quick digression about bats....

So I was just reading an essay by David Quammen today about overhunting of the Mariana fruit bat (Pteropus tokudae) in Guam. Apparently they are a tasty game meat eaten on feast days like Easter and presumably Christmas. What I found fascinating is that the name for the fruit bat in the native Guamanian language (Chamorro) is fanihi, which is the same as the word (fanihy) for the giant fruit bat of Madagascar (Pteropus rufus).

The Madagascar flying fox, like other large bats, is predominantly a fruit eater- they like to eat the nectar, blossoms, and sometimes fruit of several native and introduced trees. They thrive on some of the introduced trees like mangoes and eucalyptus. During my last year in Madagascar, I was very interested in trying to locate a colony of flying foxes, or smaller bats. I was particularly interested in trying to locate a colony of the smaller, insect-eating bats, as their droppings are a very good fertilizer. Bat droppings (of insectivorous bats) are apparently about 10% pure nitrogen by dry weight, which is comparable to a moderate to low quality chemical fertilizer. This is a very impressive nitrogen concentration for a natural, organic fertiliser; by comparison, cow manure is only 0.5-1% N by weight, and chicken manure only 1-2%. Bat manure would be an excellent ferilzier as it has some of the soil-building benefits of an organic, carbon-based fertilizer along with N concentrations comparable to a chemical fertilizer.

I learned later that some Peace Corps volunteers up in the highlands had actually been involved in collecting bat manure to fertilize agricultural lands. This would have been a pretty awesome project to get involved with. Unfortunately, there were not any bat colonies too near where I lived. The bats close to the village had been driven away by hunting pressure, and although there were some bat colonies further out in the mangrove flats between my village and the sea, they were quite far away and it wouldn't have been economical to bring manure in from that distance. I kind of wish I had gone hunting for them though, it would have been pretty fun. I certainly do recommend trying to get your hands (as it were) on some bat manure, as it is supposed to really be an excellent fertilizer.

Anyway, how amazing is it that the word for 'bat' in Chamorro and Malagasy are the same? Both languages, of course, are part of the Austronesian language family. The ancestors of the Chamorro, and at least some of the ancestors of today's Malagasy peoples, originated in Taiwan about 3,000 years ago, and from their spread out in their outrigger canoes, all over the southern oceans. They colonized islands and archipelagoes from Easter Island to Madagascar, stretching across three continents in the biggest expansion prior to European colonization: the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, Polynesia. A few of the words in Malagasy are similar to Malay or Indonesian words, e.g. anaka or zanaka for "child", similar to Indonesian anak. Still, isn't it odd that one of the words to remain totally unchanged was the name for a fairly obscure wild animal? I wonder what the word is for 'fruit bat' in Tagalog or Malay.

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