A total of nine different bat species are found in Ireland. These flying insectivorous mammals are a fascinating group. Fifty years ago, my wife Lindi was given a ‘stuffed’ brown long-eared bat by a then young medical student, David Barry, who had earlier practiced his dissection skills on the specimen. Stretched between its extremely long fingers is a web of skin which forms the wings. Leaving their roosts shortly after sunset, they feed on a range of invertebrates including moths, earwigs and spiders which are picked off the foliage of trees and shrubs, in addition to flying insects which are taken on the wing. They possess a formidable set of needle-sharp, pointed teeth which are ideal for seizing prey.
My wonderful friend John ‘Squire’ Murray, while perambulating along the sylvan banks of the River Boyne some years ago, happened on the skeleton of an otter. Knowing that I was in the process of assembling an osteological comparative collection, he very thoughtfully bagged the specimen and it now resides in my lab in the ‘Carnivore’ section. Its prey consists primarily of fish including eel, salmon and trout. As a member of the Mustelidae family of mammals, which include badger, stoat, pine marten and mink, they possess a scent gland positioned at the anus. Each time the animal defecates, the droppings, known as spraints, are imbued with the scent and used to mark territories. Its Irish name ‘madra uisce’ means ‘water dog’ and they are one of our native species, having reached here around 10,000 years ago following the end of the Ice Age.
The lesser spotted dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula) is a member of the shark family and sports the characteristic features of its relations. They are found in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and North Sea and, in common with other species of shark, have a sandpaper feel to their skin due to the tooth-like projections on the scales called denticles. Living on the sea bottom, they feed on crustaceans, molluscs and small fish. The individual eggs are contained in a protective, rectangular capsule equipped with tendrils at each of the corners which wrap around seaweeds and so safely anchor it until the young fish emerge. Often found washed ashore, the empty egg capsules are holed and indicate the point where the tiny dogfish emerged. They are known by the fanciful name of ‘mermaid’s purses’. You may have at some point enjoyed lesser spotted dogfish with chips in the guise of ‘rock salmon’.
The Irish hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) is a native species and bone evidence indicates that it has been here for a long time. Herbivorous, it is aptly equipped with a set of chisel-like incisors which it uses to nibble on grasses, gorse, heather, and other plants. As far as dining is concerned, hares make sure to get value for money! They consume their own droppings, a kind of ‘second-helping’ so to speak, in order to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from the food. This digestive technique is called ‘refection’.
The barn owl (Tyto alba) hunts mainly mice, rats and shrews. Its sharp, hooked upper beak is perfectly designed for snagging prey which is swallowed whole. The undigestible parts, the hair and bone, are later regurgitated and expelled from the mouth. These small ‘packages’ are known as pellets. Active at night, barn owls on occasion emit a high pitched, unnerving screech, earning it the Irish name Scréachóg reilige, ‘the graveyard screecher’. Hanging out in graveyards, their silent flight and light colouration give the bird something of a ghostly appearance.
The European mole (Talpa europaea) never made it as far as Ireland following the melting of the ice sheets. The slick muscular body, dense velvety coat and powerful, clawed front feet are designed for tunnelling and the animal possesses consummate skills in this art. Each mole patrols its own system of tunnels as it hunts for earthworms, grubs, beetle larvae, and slugs. This specimen was discovered in a box of junk in a flea market in Brussels in 1980 and having just reread Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful book ‘The Wind in the Willows’, I felt compelled to purchase it!
© Vincent Butler Heritage 2020