Fanged pitcher plants and other shelters

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Woolly bat inspects fanged pitcher plant for roosting suitability.

Our captive Hardwicke’s woolly bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) preferred pitchers of bat-adapted Nepenthes hemsleyana  plants (see previous blogs), and all woolly bats radio-tracked by Michael and Caroline Schöner in their primary study area consistently returned to the preferred N. hemsleyana pitchers. However the Schöners also found woolly bats in other kinds of plants. Even in their study area they occasionally found an apparently desperate bat roosting in fanged pitcher plants (Nepenthes bicalcarata). This amazing plant relies on a pair of sharp, fang-like, nectar-producing structures above its entrance to facilitate capture of ants that climb down to reach nectar. Approaching ants lose their footing near the tips of the narrowing “fangs,” falling into the water-filled pitchers. Bats can use these pitchers only if they are first drained.  This requires a drain hole near the base. No one yet knows whether these holes are made by inventive woolly bats short on alternative shelter or by birds or other animals, perhaps seeking a meal of captured insects.

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Woolly bat personalities

Caroline Schoner protecting Merlin's camera from rain, while photographing pitcher plants Photo taken by Michael Schoner
Caroline Schoner protecting Merlin’s camera from rain.
Photo by Michael Schoner

Heavy and unpredictable rains made field photography in Brunei difficult. It was a great relief when we were finally able to obtain mealworms so we could keep tiny woolly bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) in our studio. Weighing less than a US nickel, they had been considered too small to be kept in captivity longer than overnight. But under Merlin’s watchful eye, we were able to tame and keep a cast of four. In fact, they turned out to be some of the most fun bats we’ve worked with.  By the second night they had learned to come to our hands for mealworms without our even trying to teach them, and soon learned to get Merlin’s attention when hungry by literally getting in his face.

Hardwicke's woolly bat
Hardwicke’s woolly bat
Woolly bat emerging from a Nepenthes hemsleyana pitcher
Woolly bat emerging from an N. hemsleyana pitcher

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Lost luggage and dead mealworms

Merlin and I arrived in the capital city of Brunei, Bandar seri Begawan, on August 10th with only four of our five checked bags of 350 pounds of gear and equipment. Caroline and Michael Schöner, our hosts, met us at the airport to take us to the house they had been renting on the Labi Forest Road, a two-hour drive from the capital on the coast to the interior of Brunei. They had additional bad news. The local pet store was out of  mealworms needed to feed the bats we intended to photograph in our sudio, and it would be five days till more arrived. That was also how long it took for our missing luggage containing essential tripods and flash  stands to materialize. Finally, even when everything did arrive, the electricity failed, preventing us from using fans for cooling. Our small, tin-roofed cottage got so hot that we barely survived, though all of our newly purchased mealworms, kept in the same room with us, died. Another long drive to the capitol was required to purchase more, further delaying us from keeping bats in our studio.

Michael and Caroline Schöner wading through a peat swamp, searching for bats roosting in pitcher plants
Michael and Caroline Schöner wading through a peat swamp, searching for bats roosting in pitcher plants
Hardwicke's Woolly Bat roosting in a pitcher plant
Hardwicke’s Woolly Bat (Kerivoula hardwickii) roosting in a pitcher plant (Nepenthes hemsleyana).

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Bats that live in carnivorous plants

Merlin and I will be leaving for the island of Borneo this Friday, flying, waiting in airports or traveling by car for approximately 40 hours to reach our destination in Brunei, one of the three countries that share Asia’s largest island. Our hosts, Caroline and Michael Schoner, have generously invited us to photograph one of the world’s most fascinating bat-plant relationships, the subject of their doctoral theses. We will be photographing Hardwicke’s woolly bat (Kerivoula hardwickii) roosting in carnivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata) growing in peat swamps. These plants provide roosting space in exchange for receiving nitrogen from the bat’s feces.

We’ll be working with Caroline and Michael August 10-31 in an exceptionally challenging project, faced with a 13-hour time change, photographing some of the world’s smallest mammals (weighing just 2.5-4 gms) in flooded swamplands. Internet access will be limited, but we will do our best to get out at least one or two blogs while still there. Subscribe for our next exciting adventure!

A novel resource–service mutualism between bats and pitcher plants T. Ulmar Grafe, Caroline R. Schöner, Gerald Kerth, Anissa Junaidi, Michael G. Schöner DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1141Published 26 January 2011
A novel resource–service mutualism between bats and pitcher plants
T. Ulmar Grafe, Caroline R. Schöner, Gerald Kerth, Anissa Junaidi, Michael G. Schöner
DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1141Published 26 January 2011

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