Media & Education
News Room

Volume 17, Issue 1, Spring 1999

Postal Bats

A BCI member’s collection of bat-related stamps demonstrates an innovative way to teach people about bats . . .

By Kroeber, Lisa

A BCI member’s collection of bat-related stamps demonstrates an innovative way to teach people about bats . . .

Bats flying in daylight hours? Well, yes, flying all around the world on postage stamps that are stunning in their variety, color, and beauty. In fact, no fewer than 75 countries have commemorated bats by depicting them on stamps. China produced the first stamp known to picture a bat more than 100 years ago; the most recent was issued by Fiji just last year, featuring the Fijian monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex acrodonta). That stamp, the ones on these pages, and many more that illustrate subject matter related to bats, are part of a prize-winning philatelic exhibit created by BCI member Thomas Lera.

Lera, who has researched many of the stamps in his collection, describes a few of the specific reasons for the choices countries make about their stamps. Some depict bats on stamps to celebrate their country’s wildlife, or as part of a series highlighting endangered species or nature conservation or celebrating a national park or forest. The majority of the 165-plus bat stamps in existence have been issued by countries in the tropics--for example, Tonga and Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, and Ghana and Liberia in Africa--possibly because tropical bats, especially large, Old World flying foxes, are a much more noticeable part of everyday life than the microchiropteran bats prevalent elsewhere.

Despite having employed postage stamps for 152 years, the United States has never produced a bat stamp, although Lera’s research reveals that a bat was slated to be among the animals featured in a recent U.S. series on endangered species. The Postal Service required, however, that the image for the stamp be drawn from a photograph taken by the artist. When no successful photo was produced (not an easy task, after all), a snake was used on the stamp instead.

Nevertheless, a bat has appeared as a cancellation in the U.S. In the early days of stamp use, individual postmasters could devise their own methods for marking stamps to prevent repeat usage. Some of them carved elaborate designs into pieces of cork, which were inked, then imprinted across the stamp. In Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1865, such a carved-in-cork cancellation was created in the form of a flying little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus).

In addition to collecting and exhibiting a noteworthy array of stamps, Tom Lera is also the author of Bats in Philately. In this book, Lera classifies the stamps by taxonomic family, such as the Vespertilionidae family (plain-nosed bats); Rhinolophidae (horseshoe bats); or Pteropodidae (Old World fruit bats). Out of 18 bat families, 12 have been represented on stamps. Some, such as the Old World fruit bats, have had many species featured, while others, such as the slit-faced bat family (Nycteridae), have had only one. (Nycteris thebaica, the Egyptian slit-faced bat, appeared on a 1989 stamp from Zambia.)

During his college days, Lera’s interest in geology led him to explore caves all over the United States, Central and South America, and Europe, and through these speleological adventures, he began learning about bats. A speleophilately meeting in the early 1970s sparked his interest in stamps. Twenty years later, Lera regularly exhibits his collection worldwide.

In competition, Lera displays his collection in six plexiglass frames, each containing 16 pages of stamps, cancellations, postal envelopes, and stationery with captions. He works continually to improve the display, learning from the judges in each contest he enters. His awards testify to his success--silver in Genoa, Italy, and in Singapore; large silver in Milan; and just last year, the National Topical Stamp Show’s Grand Award. Lera says it was especially gratifying to receive this best-of-show award because the win qualified his exhibit to compete in the Championship of Champions in Cleveland later this year.

Lera’s awards are all the more impressive considering the two handicaps inherent in his exhibit. First, it is a thematic collection--one which develops a subject area--in contrast to more traditional collections that target stamps of a country. Second, the exhibit is limited in size because of the relatively low number of bat-related stamps available, compared to more common themes such as flowers or trains. Given these impediments, Lera has been quite inventive in casting as broad a net as possible; his exhibit contains sections featuring many aspects of history and culture related to bats.

In the section pertaining to scientists, a Korean stamp illustrates the connection between bats and radar, and an Italian stamp commemorates Father Spallanzani, who noted in 1794 that bats used sound as a sixth sense. In addition, several stamps honor Darwin. In 1982, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, four British Commonwealth countries--Mauritius, St. Helena, Ascension, and the Falkland Islands--each released a set of four Darwin-related stamps, including one with an image of the Greater Mascarene flying fox (Pteropus niger), which Darwin studied.

Lera’s section on inventors includes stamps from both Italy and the Republic of Niger honoring Leonardo da Vinci, who employed the bat wing in his designs. Stamps from France, Gabon, Senegal, and Niger honor Clement Ader--considered the French father of aviation--who used da Vinci’s bat-wing drawings in constructing his own plane in the 1890s. Piloted by Ader and driven by a steam engine, the plane flew over 150 feet before crashing. Ader survived the crash of his second airplane as well as the first.

In the exhibit’s portion on art and literature, stamps cover a wide range of bat-related topics: an illustration from the opera Die Fledermaus, (fledermaus is German for bat), a fresco in Slovenia titled “The Fifth Day of Creation,” that features a bat, and a Mengloang Bat Mask which, Lera learned through his research, was worn on stage in the Hongyang Cave Opera in China.

The category titled “Legends and Myths” contains several stamps reflecting the Chinese belief that bats are symbols of good luck. In Chinese, the word for bat and the word for good luck have the same sound, fu. The five-bat wu fu symbol, which BCI members will recognize as our logo, appears frequently in Chinese literature and art, as well as on many stamps. Wu is the word for five, and each bat represents one of the five elements--earth, air, fire water, metal--as well as one of the five happinesses--health, wealth, long life, good luck, tranquility. (Representations of these elements and happinesses vary throughout Chinese philosophy.) In 1894, a series of stamps showing the wu fu was issued for the 60th birthday of the Chinese Empress Dowager. According to Lera, an early sheet of this series was printed improperly, and only four of the five bats circling the center design were inked. He estimates that 96 copies of this four-bat stamp were issued. Three are known to exist today, one of which sold recently for $68,000.

BCI is indeed fortunate to name Tom Lera among its members. Many thanks to him for amassing and sharing his rich and diverse collection of stamps, which has introduced bats to people all over the world. We encourage members who live in or near Ohio to take friends and family to see Lera’s exhibit in the Championship of Champions competition this summer at the American Philatelic Society’s 113th Annual Convention, scheduled for August 26-29, in the Cleveland Convention Center. Admission is free. Good luck, Tom!

Lisa Kroeber is a BCI member and volunteer writer for BATS. She is an author and construction project manager who lives in California and Massachusetts.

BCI thanks Tom Lera for generously loaning many of his stamps so we could scan and photograph them. Lera’s book, Bats in Philately, is available for
$10.00 from Speleobooks at www.albany.
net/~oldbat or (518) 295-7978 (before 9:00 pm EST) or from the American Topical Association (Send a $10.00 check to P.O. Box 630, Johnstown, PA 15907; ask for Handbook 128).

For those interested in collecting bat stamps, the following web site has links to stamp dealers all over the world: html

Myotis in the mailbag, Leptonycteris on your letters . . .
How to Appeal for a U.S. Bat Stamp

The United States’ failure to issue a bat stamp cannot be blamed on lack of effort by bat enthusiasts. In the past, BCI and many of our members have petitioned the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to acknowledge the important roles of bats with this honor. But with competition from roughly 40,000 other requests a year, ours has not yet been granted.

The USPS Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee meets several times a year to select new topics for stamps. Because their criteria state that “only themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered,” any requests sent to them should focus on bats found in the United States. Perhaps with continued appeals, we can convince the Advisory Committee that bats are indeed a subject of “widespread appeal and significance” to Americans. Write to:

Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee
c/o Stamp Management
U.S. Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza, SW
Room 4474EB
Washington, D.C. 20260-6756

The captions above tell each stamp’s date of issue and bat species depicted. The Chilean stamp immediately above was the first to show an actual bat, as opposed to a stylized one. It dates to 1948, and the species shown is the yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium).

Right: This German cancellation from 1981 commemorates one of
the earliest recorded bat fossils from the middle Eocene period (about 50 million years ago), discovered in what is now the town of Giessen.

Below: Bats are considered sacred in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga.
A 1992 Tonga souvenir sheet tells the story of the islands’ best known colony of flying foxes, following story illustrations on the stamps. On three other occasions, Tonga has issued stamps honoring the Tongan flying fox (Pteropus tonganus), including the 1978 strip shown on bottom.

Tom Lera, left, poses at the 1998 Milan International Exposition with Italian friend, fellow caver, and philatelist Renato Banti in front of Lera’s stamp exhibit, which was awarded a large silver medal.

Above Left: A Chinese wu fu stamp printed in 1897.

Right and below: Many countries have issued sets of two or more bat stamps illustrating different species. Shown here are sets from Bulgaria and the Dominican Republic, as well as individual stamps from sets issued by Somalia and Vanuatu. Other places that have issued bat sets include Costa Rica, Belize, Palau, Tanzania, Zambia, Montserrat, Poland, and Samoa.

All articles in this issue:

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