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Holy Batroots 3/8 Are Bats Related to Humans?

July 24, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Holy Batroots 3/8 Is it really true, as some scientists suggest, that human beings and bats might be distant cousins who share the same primeval ancestors? Is there a Batman or Count Dracula lurking in each of us?

In the heat of this summer’s batmania, with American moviegoers breaking box-office records to see ″Batman,″ anything seems possible.

The National Zoo’s bat expert, Dr. John Seidensticker, says it’s an intriguing theory, one you could sink your teeth into, but he’s not sure he believes it. Other scientists at the Smithsonian Institution scoff at the idea.

Seidensticker says brain studies have yielded evidence that certain kinds of large bats found in Africa and the South Pacific may be descendants of prehistoric primates akin to lemurs or mouselike shrews.

″The theory is that these bats are really flying primates,″ he says, and connected somehow in the evolutionary chain to the early primate ancestors of monkeys, apes, gorillas - and humans.

But Dr. Charles Handley, a leading authority on bats and other mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says this theory is a ″hot potato″ of scientific controversy that has won few adherents.

″We don’t know what the ancestors of bats really were,″ Handley said.

The 160 fluttering bats in the National Zoo’s new Bat Cave aren’t talking.

In fact, they don’t display the slightest familial interest in their supposed two-legged cousins who stare intently through a glass wall into their dimly lighted hideaway of damp rocks and hollow tree trunks.

One recent visitor was Vice President Dan Quayle and his children, who attended the Washington premiere of ″Batman″ at a nearby movie theater and then joined a post-screening party for 1,200 guests in a tent outside the Bat Cave.

Seidensticker, the zoo’s associate curator of mammals, illuminated the cave for Quayle with a flashlight. He said the vice president was ″very interested″ in the bats and lingered for seven minutes, much longer than the average tourist.

Seidensticker said bats ″are not mice with wings, they are bats,″ and people shouldn’t be afraid of them.

″They actually are nice, fun, incredible animals,″ he says. ″They’re great little guys.″

Keeper Carol Prima, who wears a Batman baseball cap, says the bats have never bothered her. ″They’re not aggressive,″ she said. ″If anything, they’re just curious.″

They hover watchfully while she scrubs the cave walls or delivers their meals. The bats, three species of fruit eaters, consume 30 pounds of grapes, melons, bananas and a gruel of peach nectar and vitamins every day.

The rest of the time they fly back and forth, socialize in their ″harems″ and just hang out. Or, more precisely, hang down. They also have active sex lives.

″They’re continuously producing babies,″ Seidensticker says.

Ms. Prima says she’s never felt threatened working in the Bat Cave.

″They never touch me, and they’ve never flown into my hair,″ she said. ″They keep their distance. They know you’re there, but they aren’t interested in coming near you. They aren’t accepting you as a bat.″

″There’s no need to fear these little guys,″ she says, although some visitors have been seen anxiously sprinting past the Bat Cave without a glance.

The public’s most frequently asked question, says Seidensticker, is ″Where’s the Batmobile?″

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