You've probably heard of Congress going to bat for people. Well, have you heard of the bat going to Congress?
Meet Pe'a Vao, who will accompany Paul Cox, Brigham Young University associate professor, and a small contingent appearing Thursday before the House Subcommittee on National Parks in support of granting national-park status to a rain forest in American Samoa.Scientists know him as pteropus samoeansis, while some folks may recognize him by his more common name - a Samoan flying fox. Those speaking certain Germanic languages refer to the species of fruit bat as "a flying dog."
No matter the name, he is one of those winged mammals that Americans tend to associate with Halloween and horror films. However, in other countries and cultures, he might be given a more impressive honor - considered as a good-luck symbol by some Chinese or a rain forest guardian by some Polynesians.
Cox sees Pe'a Vao - Samoan for "flying fox of the forest" - as serving two purposes. First, the 2-month-old bat represents the flying fox species, which in turn represents Samoa's primary symbol of ecology. And second, the animal is going to double as a makeshift lobbyist for his homeland - the Samoan rain forests.
Left to die in the rain forest when his mother was shot by a hunter, Pe'a Vao came into possession of Cox, who - aided by the help of the governor of American Samoa and Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, in overcoming a lot of red tape - brought the baby bat as a new U.S. resident.
Even before his appearance before the House subcommittee, Pe'a Vao found himself in a spotlight usually reserved for VIPs and celebrities. Brought out of its traveling cage for feedings, the Samoan flying fox quickly became the center of attention on the July 17 flight.
Just learning how to fly, Pe'a Vao usually spends his time hanging around - upside down, mind you. Still an adolescent, he's content to nestle up with a soft, brown washcloth, which he may think is his mother's furry body.
The animal will be involved in research by Cox, who is suspicious that the Samoan flying fox can distinguish colors, as can a honeybee. Once mature, it will boast a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet wide, which enables it to glide with the ease of a sailplane.
One of two bat species native to Samoa, the Samoan flying fox is diurnal - active during the day - and feeds on fruit and flower nectar.
Once numbering in the tens of thousands, the Samoan flying fox has an estimated population in Samoa of only about 100. A dwindling rain forest is being blamed in part for the demise of the bats.
Meanwhile, the Samoan flying foxes play more important roles other than being unusual little creatures. They have their place in culture, ceremonies, and even legends.
One island legend speaks of the wife of a Tongan king, who is chased into the rain forest and up a tree because of her inability to bear a child. With firewood placed at the bottom of the tree's trunk and with the flames licking at her heels, the woman is saved by flying foxes, which pluck her from the treetop and carry her off to saftey. The woman delivers a son, whose name - Tonumaipe'a, meaning "saved by flying foxes" - later becomes a royal title.
Some Australian aborigines use the feces of flying foxes in their paintings, saying it adds the "life of the forest" to their work. Cox said that can be understood literally. Calling it "a keystone species," Cox describes the flying fox as the major pollinator and seed disperser in Samoan rain forests. "At least one-third of the plants depend on the flying fox for seed dispersal or pollination. . . . If this animal species becomes extinct, the diversity of the rain forest will crash."