Education is Key to Flying Fox Survival

Merlin Tuttle
10/25/17

In response to the Mongabay article of August 29 titled, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz, commented as follows on September 5:

Sheema in a durian tree.

“Actually this article neglected to mention another huge problem caused by these negative representations of bats. It’s not just about deliberate human killings of bats – even where bats are not being killed by people, the repercussions of this negative reputation are still damaging in indirect ways because it affects efforts and funding for research and conservation. I am currently the only person working on the conservation ecology of Pteropus in Malaysia, where there has been such a disproportionate amount of attention, effort, and money put into researching ONLY the virology and public health aspects of these bats. Hardly anyone is interested in looking at the conservation ecology aspect; never mind that these bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers, and are severely threatened by hunting – all topics which desperately require more attention and work. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be constantly approached by other researchers who are only interested in collaborating on virology, or to be told that I can only get funding if I include a disease and public health aspect in my project. Ultimately these bats will go extinct if people – including researchers and funders – are simply too focused on worrying about whether we’re going to catch diseases from them, instead of trying to mitigate the threats that we humans present to them. This kind of attitude is very, very damaging to bat conservation.”

Dr. Aziz explaining flying fox pollination to Mak Long, owner of the durian orcharad where her Ph.D. rhesis research was conducted. MTBC photos are playing a vital role in educating islanders to a better appreciation of flying foxes.
Sheema using a light microscope to look for pollen grains in flying fox droppings.

Dr. Aziz is one of a very few researchers in her part of the world dedicated to helping people understand the economic and ecological importance of conserving flying foxes. Her research titled, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus),” recently appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

In her paper, she provides information critical to convincing islanders to protect flying foxes, namely that they are playing a key role as pollinators of one of Southeast Asia’s most valued crops, not causing damage as previously believed. She used camera and video traps to document that island flying foxes (Pteropus hyomelanus) do not damage durian flowersas even some researchers had suspected. Video traps clearly absolved the bats. Island flying foxes and cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea) are major pollinators. The damage was caused by plantain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) who often ate immature flowers.

 

Aziz also notes that flying foxes sometimes can become a nuisance when roosting too near people, causing both noise and odor problems. She hopes to find a way to harmlessly convince these bats to move farther away, so they will be more welcome. There is an urgent need for education to minimize negative biases while solving legitimate nuisances. Aziz emphasizes the need to find solutions to real problems instead of needlessly scaring people about rare threats.

Large flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) have wingspans of nearly six feet, the largest of any bat. They are widespread in Southeast Asia, Borneo and the Philippines, but are in alarming decline due to over-harvesting for human food, and are often needlessly killed when entering orchards.

She reports, “I have been using your [Merlin Tuttle’s] photos, especially the amazing shots of P. vampyrus, in all the presentations I give. It’s enormously helpful because the only shots I have of that species are the poor dead ones shot by a hunter, and it’s not a very nice picture at all. I think it would be almost impossible for me to get a good photo of P. vampyrus here in Malaysia! Your close-up shots of Pteropus pollinating and feeding on fruit are also particularly useful for illustrating bat ecosystem services – I used these in a public talk I gave, at an event organized by the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which was very well received. And of course, I also used your photos in the awareness video! I now use them anytime I want to talk about bat ecosystem services.”

An island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus), the focus of Dr. Azizes’ primary research.

Aziz is devoting her career to helping people solve problems while benefiting from the essential contributions of flying foxes. If bats are to survive in sufficient numbers to fulfil their critical environmental and ecological roles, Aziz, and many more like her will need all the help they can get. Just saving a few endangered remnants is not enough!

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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… (more…)

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Finding bat roosts in Trinidad

Our digital and social media coordinator, Teresa Nichta, is learning firsthand the challenges of bat photography, whether in the studio or in the wild. This is her experience in her words.

I already knew I would love the rain forest; it was so massive yet I felt right at home.

Documenting where bats live was a major objective of this trip, and that was just what we did!  Of course, I’d seen Merlin’s photos and learned about what we were looking for but seeing bats at home in the forest in person was even more enthralling than I had imagined. Bats are nearly everywhere but they’re seldom seen because they hide so well. (more…)

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Teresa’s continued adventures with Merlin

In our previous blog, Teresa told us what it was like to follow Merlin into a hollow tree in the rain forest. Now she tells us what it was like netting and radio-tracking bats, and what happened to the bats once we caught them.

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My next adventure with bats began when I accompanied Merlin and the Trinibats teams netting and radio-tracking rare bats to see where they lived. It was a lot of work packing and carrying all the necessary equipment to the middle of the rain forest, then keeping vigilant watch over the virtually transparent nets for hours on end. This was my first experience with bat netting and I kept thinking to myself, “These bat people are hardcore!” It’s tough work!

(more…)

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My First Field Trip with Merlin

Have you ever squeezed into a hollow tree in the rain forest? Me neither. But MTBC’s digital/social media coordinator, Teresa Nichta, followed Merlin into just such a tree during our recent field work in Trinidad searching for… hey, let’s hear the story from Teresa and make sure you watch the video at the end!

“Great, you’re finally here! Come on, we’re going hunting for katydids,” Merlin says. It’s nearly 11pm and I drop my bags, strap on my headlight and spray bug repellent on the brand new boots I’d been wearing since I boarded the plane in Texas for Trinidad.

(more…)

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Trinidad Portraits

 

Thanks to Trinibat volunteers, 43 of Trinidad’s 68 bat species were captured, documented and released over the past two weeks. Little known species like Spectral (Vampirum spectrum) and Striped hairy-nosed (Mimon crenulatum) bats were tracked back to their unique roosts, providing new information essential to their conservation. (more…)

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Teaming up with Trinibats

We are in Trinidad working with Trinibats, co-founded by Trinidad-born naturalist, Geoffrey Gomes, who first contacted Merlin in 2009 for advice on how to convince his government to remove bats from its vermin list. Inspired with new insights, Geoffrey has since become a self-taught, enthusiastic bat man. He is now the leading expert on bats of Trinidad and has recently published a book, The Bats of Trinidad and Tobago, co-authored by talented bat artist, Fiona Reid. According to Merlin, it is one of the finest books on bats yet written. (more…)

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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).

(more…)

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