When the U.S. Military Enlisted the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats

This is a guest post by Ben Wunderman, who writes:

This story is pretty much accurate as far as I could research—most of it is supported by a few sources. The biggest question is to what extent Donald Griffin was involved and at what stage, but he was involved. That was actually the element that surprised me the most.

Why talk about Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis)?

Because being “free-tailed” is a pretty cool thing, as is being identified as Mexican yet also being among the most widely distributed mammals of the Americas. They can “jam” the echolocation calls of a rival bat species using an ultrasonic vocalization. They are said to have the fastest horizontal speed of all animals – although they have resisted measurement. 

They also have a weird military backstory that confirms their lack of interest in being subject to human interference.

An enterprising Pennsylvanian, Lytle Adams, went to Donald Griffin (or FDR went to Griffin; it is unclear) after Pearl Harbor with the idea to use Mexican free-tailed bats to carry and detonate incendiary payloads over Tokyo. Adams had visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park and had the bright and highly questionable idea there. Griffin didn’t seem too wild about it (hard to tell), but FDR approved it and the project was launched.

The result?

Most of the free-tailin’ bats escaped their confines (bombs attached) and exploded a fuel tank that burned down the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base in New Mexico and destroyed the test range.

The Plowshares ain’t got nothing on the Mexican free-tailed bat.

Photo credit: Ann Froschauer USFWS Public domain, via Pixnio / cc 0

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