In the Portuguese libraries, the bats actually serve a very specific purpose. At the University of Coimbra in central Portugal, there are bats in the library. They swoop through the stacks, snapping up bugs as they go. It’s one of two 18th-century Portuguese libraries where bats are welcome guests, allowed to stay for the bug-eating — and, by extension, manuscript-preserving — services they provide. And visitors to Portugal can see them for themselves.
In Coimbra, a colony of Common bats makes their home behind the bookshelves of the university’s Joanina Library, emerging at nightfall to consume flies and gnats and other pests before swooping out the library windows and across the hilltop college town in search of water. The service they provide is indispensable: They eat insects in the library that might otherwise feed on manuscript pages.
Whether the flittermice took up residence here 300 years ago, when the library was built, or more recently is unknown. Librarians do know they’ve been here since at least the 19th century; they still use fabric made from animal skin, imported from Imperial Russia, to cover the original 18th-century tables, protecting them from scat left by the library’s flying residents. And every morning, just as their forebears did, the librarians remove the skins and clean the library floors.
Some 125 miles to the south, just northwest of Lisbon, another colony of indoor-outdoor bats is in residence at the 300-year-old Library at the National Palace of Mafra. Dating this colony is also difficult, but Hugo Rebelo, a bat biologist at the Center for Research on Biodiversity and Genetic Resources of the University of Porto, imagines some have been here for centuries. He has spent time recording this colony — comprised largely of grey long-eared bats as well as some serotine bats — as they forage among the stacks.
Catching a glimpse of the bats here can also be difficult. The library closes before nightfall, which is when the winged creatures make their nightly migration between the stacks and the palace’s gardens.
But the library pays tribute with a small glass case showcasing the taxidermied remains of three former winged residents.