Is Burton Pipistrelle a Budding Superhero?

Posted: October 26, 2011 - 16:04 , by royal

Cover image of "Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle out of the bat cave"

Burton & Isabelle Pipistrelle out of the bat cave, by Denise Dias, Illustrated by Tara Winterhalt

In ROM’s new children’s book, Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle: Out of the Bat Cave, Burton Pipestrelle uses echolocation to find his way home to the ROM’s Bat Cave. In a previous blog, this was described as a “superpower”, but is it? Is he really the next Batman superhero in waiting? Will Burton venture out beyond the galleries and crystal structure of the ROM to save Hogtown from super criminals? Let’s think this through logically and sensibly.

Echolocation is an ultrahigh frequency system used by bats for flying around at night and for finding food. I have enough problems trying to walk in the dark to get to the bathroom at night, let alone making it to the kitchen downstairs for a midnight snack. If it’s not a superpower, echolocation is definitely an amazing biological adaptation that has enabled bats to rule the night skies.

There are over 1,200 species of bats, making them the second most biodiverse group of mammals (after rodents), and the only ones that can fly. Bats are like the nocturnal equivalent of birds, which conquer the aerial realm during the day. However, unlike bats, birds have the advantage of being able to use their eyes to see.

Of course, we all know that bats aren’t blind. They all have eyes, though most lack the retinal cones for colour vision which are useful for seeing during the day. On the other hand, bats do see better in the dark because their retinas are primarily composed of the more sensitive rods for picking up whatever miniscule bits of light there are in the night.

On a black backdrop, a bat is caught on film in flight.

A Pteronotus bat in flight.

But the real advantage bats have is echolocation – they see with their ears. About 85% of the species of bats have the ability to echolocate, so in the world of bats, this sonar-like system is for mere mortals.

The evidence seems to point to Burton Pipistrelle as having pedestrian abilities no different from most other bats, albeit he has a keen sense of adventure and a thirst for knowledge. But, come to think of it, Batman was a superhero without any superpowers…

Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle: Out of the Bat Cave is available in the ROM Museum Store, bookstores, and online. Published by Royal Ontario Museum Press, hardcover, $19.99.