Teresa’s first cave experience

MTBC’s Teresa Nichta’s final story in this series of her first field trip with Merlin. Enjoy!

 

Unloading equipment to begin the ascent up Tamana Hill.
Merlin and the Trinibats team unloading equipment to begin the ascent up Tamana Hill.

 

 

 

For me, a much anticipated highlight of my Trinidad adventure was my first trip into a major bat cave. Tamana Cave shelters tens of thousands of bats including half a dozen species of an intriguing variety. But first, you have to get there! It’s a long, windy drive to the base of the “hill.” Once you can drive no further it’s time to begin the steep ascent to the top of Tamana Hill…

Once at the top it’s time to go back down again, down and inside the cave that is! I excitedly followed Merlin down a steep slope into a gaping entrance. We quickly passed a room reverberating with bat sounds, high pitched chittering, flapping wings, and lots of bats exiting and entering. This was a major roosting area that Merlin didn’t want to disturb.

Hiking up Tamana Hill.
Hiking up Tamana Hill.

We diverted our headlamps and continued to what appeared to me to be a dead end. Then, suddenly Merlin began to disappear virtually beneath my feet.  The hole he was entering was so small he had to wriggle back and forth several times to make it through. He called back, “Come on. This is where the cool bats are. It’s best to come feet first.”

The passage was so small I had to remove my vest, unload my equipment and suck in my breath to make it through! As I wriggled in, dozens of surprised bats attempting to pass as usual ended up landing on my head to facilitate a U-turn. Now I can say with certainty that bats don’t get tangled in hair!

Emerging a few feet farther, I could see why we hadn’t gone head first. I was standing in several inches of a black bat guano and water soup. My new boots would never be the same, putting a righteous end to my obvious novice status. Now we could stand up and walk.

Teresa in the infamous Tamana cave tight squeeze.

This chamber contained domes of varied size in the limestone ceiling, some shallow, others deep. Each was guarded by an adult male Greater spear-nosed bat (Phyllostomus hastatus) attempting to look as big and imposing as possible. Groups of females clustered tightly together behind each male, all simply peering down at us. These are one of Latin America’s largest species, with up to 27-inch (0.69 meters) wingspans. They feed mostly on insects, fruit and nectar.

As I filmed, Merlin explained that, in this species, males appear to do little if any courting. Instead they compete with other males for dominance of the best roosting places for mothers to rear their pups. Deeper domes in cave ceilings trap more body heat and provide increased security, so males that “own” the deepest ones attract the most mates.

A greater spear-nosed bat (Phyllostomus hastatus guarding his harem in a domed ceiling cavity in a cave in Trinidad. Courtship & Rearing Young
A greater spear-nosed bat (Phyllostomus hastatus guarding his harem in a domed ceiling cavity in Tamana Cave

In their guarded cavities, these bats appeared to feel quite safe, not true for the smaller species that formed larger groups farther inside. These took flight at the slightest disturbance, so we turned around before reaching them. On the way out I was able to film some bachelors that were a bit braver.

Once outside we set up for Merlin to take portraits and waited for the sun to set. Seeing so many bats emerge right in front of me was truly magical.

So, I survived my first field trip with no venomous snake encounters, no chiggers, some new bat friends and a mind full of fresh experiences that I hope will serve me well in educating the world about bats. There is so much to love and learn about bats! I left Trinidad feeling like a true bat person. Thanks, Batman!

Looking down at Teresa and Merlin inside Tamana Cave.
Looking down at Teresa and Merlin inside Tamana Cave.

 

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