Biologist Dan Riskin Plays 'Not My Job' On 'Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!' Our game is called "All the flavor of guano with none of the calories." Evolutionary biologist Dan Riskin answers three questions about Tab diet cola — (that's bat backwards).
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Not My Job: We Quiz A Bat Expert On Tab Soda

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Not My Job: We Quiz A Bat Expert On Tab Soda

Not My Job: We Quiz A Bat Expert On Tab Soda

Not My Job: We Quiz A Bat Expert On Tab Soda

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/880686156/881246048" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Courtesy Dan Riskin
Dan Riskin
Courtesy Dan Riskin

With bats in the news these days (getting blamed for COVID-19, not to mention vampires) we've invited evolutionary biologist Dan Riskin to answer three questions about Tab diet cola — (that's bat backwards). Our game is called "All the flavor of guano with none of the calories."

Click the audio link above to find out how he does.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where we talk to really well-informed people about things they have never actually cared to inform themselves about. It's called Not My Job. There are a lot of people with a lot of serious problems right now. But can we take a second and spare just a thought for the bats? They get blamed for COVID, not to mention vampires. So in order to speak for the bats, we've invited an international expert on them. He's also an expert on parasites and being on TV, which are not related at all. Dan Riskin, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

DAN RISKIN: Hi. Great to be here.

SAGAL: Now, great to have you. We appreciate this. What are your qualifications as a bat expert?

RISKIN: Well, I really like them. I did my Ph.D. on vampire bats, and I've studied bats all over the world. And I'm kind of famous for being the guy that put vampire bats on a treadmill. So if that doesn't get me street cred, I don't know what to do.

SAGAL: I have so many questions.

ROXANNE ROBERTS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: But why did you put vampire bats on the treadmill?

RISKIN: Well, so most bats are really bad on the ground. If you take a normal bat and you put it on the ground, it just flaps its wings and gets back in the air. But vampire bats land on the ground. They sneak up on a sleeping cow. They drink its blood. And then they take off and fly away. And so they walk really, really well. And so I was curious to know whether these bats - which have secondarily evolved the ability to walk well - walk the way other animals do. And so I put them on a treadmill, like you do for a biomechanics study, and I recorded them with a high-speed camera while they walked at different speeds. But when I sped the treadmill up, they switched to this running gait. And nobody knew they had that. And so this was - my great big discovery is that vampire bats could run.

SAGAL: Were the bats grateful for the workout, or did they try to attack and drink your blood?

RISKIN: We had one escape in the room. And I'll tell you - I have this new respect for vampire bats based on that. They're so smart. Like, I - if you've got a dog cornered in a room, you know how it would, you know, react and look at you and how it would try to get around you. Vampire bats look into your eye. They see through your soul. And they are way smarter than dogs. And so they - you know, they're doing calculations. They're taking off. They're zipping around the room. It's very hard to catch a vampire bat.

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: Yeah. And you only made them faster, Dan, by giving them so much exercise.

(LAUGHTER)

RISKIN: I've unleashed an evil I wasn't ready for.

ROBERTS: I want to go back to basics because I like bats a lot. But, primarily, I don't know a lot about them. I think they're just adorable. And I also know they come from itsy-bitsy to very, very big.

RISKIN: Well, you're right. Bats are really diverse. I think that's really - what makes me interested in them now is that there are more than 1,400 different species. And the smallest one weighs less than a penny. The biggest one has a six-foot wingspan. And there's a whole range of bats in between. But the thing that got me started was I was in high school, and I picked up a book on bats. And it talked about their genitals. And when I was in high school, I figured out that I could get away with reading about obscured animal genitals and mating habits and how big their parts were. And I thought it was hilarious because I had a high school sense of humor. And it turns out that a lot of scientists have the same sense of humor that I did when I was in high school.

BOOSTER: You were pretty popular in high school then, Dan, were you?

RISKIN: (Laughter) Not popular.

SAGAL: I was desperate in high school, too, but I wasn't that desperate.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Wait. You're not asking the important question. Is there something unusual about bat genitals?

RISKIN: Well, I don't know. I can't speak for everyone on the panel, but it's different for me for sure. So these bats...

(LAUGHTER)

RISKIN: Some of the males...

TOM PAPA: Mine don't have fangs, either.

(LAUGHTER)

RISKIN: Good thing this is radio. Some of these bats - they can weigh like a huge percentage of their body weight. It's really impressive. And it was funny in high school, and it's still funny now.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: OK. Hold on. Hold on. No, we have to get back to the news because one of the reasons we wanted to have you on the show was just to ask - are bats in fact the cause for this global pandemic? They've been blamed for it. Is that unfair?

RISKIN: Well, it's a great question. And so the virus seems to have come from a wild animal, and it's looking very likely that that wild animal was a bat. But it's not the bat's fault. So all kinds of animals all have different viruses. And these viruses all have the potential to jump from one species to another. And it's just bad luck that we have a receptor on our cells that's very similar to the receptor that's on these bat cells. And if the bats were alone in the woods in their pristine ecosystems and they weren't coming into contact with people, there would've been no problem. And so this is it's a time when we have to really embrace bat conservation and the conservation of wild animals and keep wild places wild so that we're not coming into contact with wild viruses.

SAGAL: Or we could just have the bats wear masks.

RISKIN: It's tricky 'cause they echolocate. So that would really mess up with their call structure.

SAGAL: That's true.

BOOSTER: Do bats not - like, even vampire bats don't attack humans.

RISKIN: I wish I could say that. But, technically - well, they do, sometimes.

PAPA: No, that's the thing. That's the scariest thing is talking...

BOOSTER: Oh, my God.

PAPA: He's talking about how cute it is and all these great attributes. All I can think of is the one sneaking up on the cow and sucking its blood. Of course, they're horrifying.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

BOOSTER: And it's very fast.

PAPA: Roxanne loves these bats. No, these are horrible creatures.

SAGAL: Also, he told us he taught them to run. My, God. We are in deep trouble. Has a bat ever bitten you?

RISKIN: Oh, yeah. Well, sure. I mean, I catch the bats, and I'm working with the bats. And they don't like being caught by a giant human. And so they bite in self-defense.

SAGAL: If you have been bitten by a vampire bat, are you yourself now a bat? Are you going to turn into a bat now?

RISKIN: I wish, no.

PAPA: He's a bat. Dan's a bat. This guy shows up on our show talking all nice about - he's a bat.

RISKIN: I'm playing for the other team, clearly. No, the...

SAGAL: No wonder you're such an enthusiast. That's why we should lend bats money.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: So you're an expert on bats, I know. But I understand you're also an expert on parasites.

RISKIN: Yeah. I worked for about eight years on a TV show on Animal Planet about parasites called "Monsters Inside Me." And so, you know, it started out - I had my Ph.D. on vampire bats, which technically are parasites because they feed on blood.

SAGAL: Can you tell us about a particularly gross parasite you've had some experience with?

RISKIN: Well, sure. I mean, out of all the parasites...

BOOSTER: His name was Braden, and he was my ex. And...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I wasn't talking to you, Joel.

RISKIN: Fortunately, I've not had any interactions with Braden. But I have had a botfly. So I was in Belize, and I got a mosquito bite. And unbeknownst to me, when the mosquito bit me, it dropped off this egg, which then molted into a larva. And then the larva went down into the hole that the mosquito had made. And then it started growing. And so I got back to Canada, where I lived. And I got this mosquito bite on top of my head, and it starts growing. And, anyway...

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

RISKIN: I don't know what Braden's like, but I felt like that was pretty good.

(LAUGHTER)

PAPA: Is it...

ROBERTS: I have a last question, Dan.

PAPA: Roxanne, can I ask - is the question how are we ever going to sleep, again?

SAGAL: (Laughter) Well, Dan Riskin, we've invited you here to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: All The Flavor Of Guano With None Of The Calories.

SAGAL: You're an expert on bats. But if you spell bat backwards, you get Tab, a vaguely disgusting soda. We were shocked to learn it's still being made.

RISKIN: Oh, God.

SAGAL: We're going to ask you three questions about that diet cola. Get two right, and you win our prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is Dan playing for?

KURTIS: Sam Trotter of Philadelphia, Pa.

SAGAL: All right. Here is your first question. When Tab was created, some at the Coca-Cola Company were skeptical. Which of these is a real quote from one of Coca-Cola's ad people in the 1960s? Is it, A, quote, "if God had wanted Coca-Cola to have saccharin in it, he would've made it that way in the first place"; B, quote, "this is unfit to wash my dog with, and I hate my dog"; or, C, this will be popular till the mid-'80s tops, but by the time a young Bill Clinton takes office in 1993, it will have been replaced by other beverages?

RISKIN: I'm going to go with B.

SAGAL: No. Actually, it was A.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAD TROMBONE SOUND EFFECT)

SAGAL: If God had wanted Coca-Cola to have saccharin in it, he would've made it that way in the first place. I guess this guy was not quite clear on where Coca-Cola actually comes from.

RISKIN: Oh, boy.

SAGAL: All right. That's OK. You still have two more chances. Don't worry about it. Here we go. Next question. In 1992, Coca-Cola debuted Tab Clear. And the company's chief marketing officer said they had a very specific goal for it. What was the mission of Tab Clear - A, to set the stage for their next product, Tab Clearasil; B, to make a drink so unliked and unpopular, it would kill off Pepsi's similar product, Pepsi Clear, by association; or, C, to, quote, "finally defeat water once and for all"?

RISKIN: It's got to be C.

SAGAL: You really think that they were trying to defeat water? That was their goal?

RISKIN: You know what? I just remembered that when I said C, I meant to say B.

SAGAL: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: They tried to kill off Pepsi's similar product, Pepsi Clear, just by association. And it worked. Pepsi Clear is no more. Last question. If you get this right, you win. Tab's name came about when they had a computer randomly generate words for them to choose from. There were other contenders. Which of these was almost the name of tab? Was it A, Abzoo, B, Zap, or, C, Zuff?

RISKIN: Zap.

SAGAL: You're right. Zap is correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: But so was Abzoo and Zuff. They were all names considered for the product that became Tab.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Bill, how did Dan do?

KURTIS: So smart. He's two out of three, means he's a winner. That means you get to go back home before midnight.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Hey, Dan, before we let you go, I want to ask you one more thing, which is that, you know, bats have always had a problem with their reputation. And it's only gotten worse. What is one thing you could say to our listeners right now that would make them love bats?

RISKIN: Google a wrinkle-faced bat, and tell me that's not a cute animal.

BOOSTER: Hey, Dan. Can - for your next little experiment, can you try putting the bats on little teeny tiny little Peloton bikes, maybe? That's sounds really cute.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

RISKIN: I think I will.

SAGAL: Dan Riskin is an evolutionary biologist and bat expert. His book, "Mother Nature Is Trying To Kill You," is available anywhere books are sold. Dan Riskin, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

RISKIN: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITSCH AND CAMP SONG, "BATMAN")

SAGAL: Just a minute, we're no bozos in our Listener Limerick Challenge game. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.

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