"On the bat's back I do fly after summer merrily" - Linnaeus's Manuscripta Medica Tom. 1

This month Education Manager Alice Cheetham takes a look at a little drawing that caught her eye in the Linnean Manuscripts and what it can tell us about one of her favourite mammals.

Published on 28th June 2024

It’s no secret that I am an avid doodler. I’ve always been a fan of a page a day diary at work - plenty of space for all manner of notes, reminders and to do lists, and of course, space for a doodle. The imagery varies but flicking back through my last few months, dragons, horses, and birds seem to feature quite heavily. Of course, there’s plenty of idle nonsense (the sort of aimlessness a long phone call inspires), but there are plenty of studies about the benefits of doodles for learning, whether related to the subject or random shapes.

As part of the Education team at the Linnean Society, we have access to a wonderful variety of material, straight from our own collections. In particular, the amazing images we can use for our resources. We make use of all manner of illustrations from the collections. Maria Sibylla Merian’s fantastic invertebrates, Edward Lear’s stunning parrots, John Tyley’s beautiful botanical paintings, I could go on! But whilst combing over our database one day, there was one image that stuck with me. It spoke to me, I had to know more. It was this delightful little chap sitting in the footer on page 83 of Carl Linnaeus’s Manuscripta Medica Tom. 1 (1727 to 1730).

pen and ink doodle of a bat at the base of a notebook page
Drawing of a bat by Carl Linnaeus inside Manuscripta Medica Tom. 1

Held with the specimens, papers and library that make up our Linnaean Collections, Manuscripta Medica Tom. 1 is a notebook made of a series of paper bundles or fascicles, stitched together and then bound as a volume. It documents excerpts from specific works Linnaeas was reading on plants, animals, parasites and much more as well as his own additions. The manuscript was compiled while Linnaeus was a student.

I’ll confess that unfortunately, my ability to read Latin is only marginally better than my ability to read Linnaeus’s handwriting but with a little help from the Collections Team, I can tell you that this page is relating information on “Vespertilio”, the oldest accepted genus of bat, first described by Linnaeas in 1758 in Systema Naturae. I think it’s reasonably safe to assume, given this, the classification tree on the page before and the various notes on animals from the mammalian genera, that this section of the notebook was Linnaeas documenting his own work in taxonomy.

These humble bats and where they fit into the grand scheme of taxonomy must have given Linnaeus quite a bit to think about – perhaps that’s why this one has been lovingly rendered in the footer, slightly wonky feet and all. When he published the first edition of Systema Naturae he grouped bats with quadrupeds rather than birds as the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) had before him, and by the time he published the 10th edition, he had classified 7 species within his Vespertillio genus.

Watercolour drawing of a bat
The Society collections include several other depictions of bats including this characterful drawing of 'Vespertilio Audubonii', by J.J. Audubon to illustrate a description of the bat sent to the Linnean Society (DA/ENG/2/SP/469/2)

Bats are fascinating creatures. They’re the only mammal that has ever achieved true flight and feature in all manner of stories and myths. They feature heavily in folklore, and in the West particularly tend to have an “evil” air about them, associated with bad spirits and darkness. We’ve all heard about Dracula and vampire bats – though in reality unless you’re a sleeping cow, you’re relatively safe from having your blood sucked (or more accurately, lapped up) by one of the three extant species of vampire bat.

According to the Bat Conservation Trust the UK has 18 native species of bat. Linnaeus’ sketch is one of these species, a long-eared bat (Plecotus auratus). Also known as the “whispering bat”. In the evolutionary arms race between prey and predator, some moths have evolved to be able to hear bats calls – and therefore avoid being eaten! The long-eared bat gets its nickname from their very quiet echolocation calls, giving it the upper hand with avoiding detection. Its large ears pick up the smallest noises and they can curl them back to tuck them out of the way.

Amazingly the one mammal specimen The Linnean Society holds is this same species of bat (identified by Steph Holt FLS) although we have no way to prove that the specimen relates directly to the drawing. You can read more about the bat specimen in our publication “L:50”.

Pages of a manuscript showing the bat doodle alongside a specimen of a bat
Linnaeus's bat drawing side by side with the Society's only mammal specimen, a long-eared bat

Since Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, the taxonomy and phylogeny of bats has been tweaked a fair amount, and even today there’s still ongoing discussion on their evolutionary timeline. Unfortunately, it turns out that bats and their predecessors don’t fossilise terribly well, so fossil records are few and far between. Despite all this, bats are everywhere! They’re the second largest order of mammals (in a surprise to no one, they’re beaten by Rodentia) and comprise about 20% of all classified mammals, with around 1,400 species. And yet they still manage to maintain their air of mystery and fantasy – even when rendered in a slightly goofy looking doodle in the footer of a student notebook!



Bat Drawing from DA/ENG/2/SP/469/2: "On the effects of various poisons on living vegetables - Richard Harlan"

"L: 50 Objects, Stories & Discoveries from The Linnean Society of London" - https://shop.linnean.org/produ...

The Wildlife Trust

The Bat Conservation Trust

William Shakespeare - The Tempest Act V, Scene I

Thanks to:

Steph Holt FLS

The Linnean Society Collections Team