Those Great Tits Want Your Braaaains, Pipistrelle Bats.

great tit

As delicately pretty as it might look, the great tit (Parus major) has been gaining quite the reputation for being involved in some seriously gruesome behaviour. Driven by hunger when their normal diet of insects has grown scarce, the great tit has been known to peck open the skulls of other passerines, or “perching birds,” and also tiny pipistrelle bats, the occurrence of the latter described in a paper published yesterday in Biology Letters. Péter Estók and Björn Siemers, bat ecologists of the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology, Germany, studied a group of fifty-odd great tits over two winters, observing eighteen cases of pipistrelle hunting in a particular Hungarian cave in the Bükk Mountains.

Having seen a single great tit hunt a pipistrelle during the winter of 1996 in the same cave, Estók set out ten years later to determine whether or not this was just a one-off case. What they believe to have found, however, is an example of cultural transmission, as in a specific behaviour learned from other individuals and passed on through generations, as tits very rarely manage to live older than eight years old. Using the waking call of the pipistrelles as they come out of hibernation, these diminutive five-inch long predators track the groggy bats down, wrench them from their hidden roosts in the cave walls, and crack open their skulls to consume the brain within.

pipistrelle bat beheaded - great tit

As part of their research, Estók et al. played a recording of the waking bat calls to the group of great tits, finding that the noise attracted around 80% of the tits, who responded by drawing closer to the speakers. This result is contrary to what has been observed in previous studies of bat calls, which have successfully served as deterrents to potential predators, the chatter effectively driving them away. The researchers also provided the great tits with bits of bacon and seeds to determine whether the attacks on the pipistrelles were the result of the birds having developed a taste for bat brain, or of a paucity of more desirable food alternatives. They found the tits to prefer the food that was provided for them, observing only one case of pipistrelle predation at this time, suggesting that this perculiar behaviour is motivated by necessity.

Okay, yes, Pipistrelle Bat, this situation is all very gross and dire for you. No one is particularly happy about having to wake up from an enormous sleep, especially when there’s a chance they’re going to have their brain case pecked open when they do so. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You need to fight back, and playing to your strengths is probably the key to your success in this situation.

But what are your strengths, tiny Pipistrelle, I hear you ask? Well, being bats, preferring to hang out in dark caves as you do, tightly hugging yourselves with those membranous black wings as you grip inside leaky crevices with those dirty, possibly frayed claws of yours, you’ve been described on more than one occasion as being “creepy.” But don’t be offended, Pipistrelle Bat, I’d still invite you for tea at my house, so long as you promised to keep the chatter to a minimum, but more to the point – your creepiness could be your best asset in driving away those great tits. They’re hardly going to want to eat something they’re revolted by, right? So next time you stir from hibernation and start talking to the bat next to you, only to have a hungry great tit fly right over and give you the murderous side-eye (because being bird, that’s all they’ve got, tiny Pipistrelle), say something to the bat next to you like, “So when I was little, my mum used to nuzzle my neck before bed and it kind of gave me shivers, like, good shivers. You know the ones I mean, right? Is that weird?” and the great tit would be like, “Eww, you’re secretly attracted to your mum? Gross!” and fly away in disgust.

This tactic will serve you well, Pipistrelle Bat, I’m quite sure, however it’s only a matter of seasons before the great tits will talk amongst themselves and work out what you’re doing. They’ll be all, “Okay, this winter, there is no way we’re going to get psyched out any goddamn inch-long bats.” So you’ll have to up the ante a bit to combat their determination. You might want to call upon such classics as, “Oh hey, great tit. My, those are some nice legs. They’re so… skinny. Almost like the legs of a child. Oh, what I would do with them…” or, “You know, when I hear the Pipistrelle opposite me having their brain case pecked open and he’s shrieking and all like, “Oh for the love of God, just kill me!” I get kinda hungry. What’s that about?” and the great tit staring you down will be like, “Dude, I’d rather starve a thousand times over than consume your fucked up brain matter. I’m going home to my family so I can make love to my wife.

So as long as you’re okay with having the reputation of being some kind of deviant who’s attracted to their mum/minors/their friends dying a painful drawn-out death, you should be safe from the murderous beaks of those deceptively adorable yellow birds. Just remember, a good reputation is nothing if you’re without a head, tiny Pipistrelle Bat.

New Scientist // Not Exactly Rocket Science // Tetrapod Zoology

– bec

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7 Comments

Filed under Animals, Science

7 responses to “Those Great Tits Want Your Braaaains, Pipistrelle Bats.

  1. Oh, Tiny Pipestrelle! What a dilemma!

  2. doug l

    A thimble’s worth of care, or maybe a small shred of aluminum foil formed as a geodesic dome could prevent brain damage, provided it’s glued to the bat’s head. Injuries to the beaks of tits will be another matter.

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