Tuesday, March 29, 2011

big bat, little bat, how big are bats?

As far as mammals go bats are on average on the small end of the spectrum. The smallest bat is the bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) that weighs less than a penny (~2 grams). This rivals the Eurasian pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus) which weighs roughly 2.5 grams, for 'smallest mammal' status. Being a bat biologist I think that the winner is this small little species that lives in Thailand and Burma and is featured in the children's book below that might be of interest to some people.

One of the largest bats is the Large flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) with wingspans of 1.5 meter (~7 foot) and weighing 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds). Flying Foxes live in Australia and the tropical areas of South-east Asia.

All members of this genus called 'flying foxes' are large and are known for their expressive 'dog-like' faces. These bats eat fruit and are important seed dispersers. Indeed their diets lead to the spread of seeds and consequent growth of fruit trees on distant islands that are easily reached by these large flying fruit-enthusists.

Read more about the conservation issues faced by the Large flying fox due to it being hunted for food (here).

An interesting video about another flying fox species the Grey-headed flying fox can be seen by clicking here.
Additionally, several books about flying foxes are available including the children's story book below.

I would like to direct encourage people to learn abou an amazing organization called the Lubee Bat Conservancy which is based in Florida that aims to conserve biological diversity though the conservation of 'plant-visiting' bats. Bats are extremely important for the pollination, and seed dispersal plants require for their successful establishment. You can read more about Lubee and see amazing photos of the bats housed there by clicking on the link here. If you live in Florida you may consider taking a tour of Lubee to see all of the various fruit bats including flying foxes that are housed there.

Monday, March 28, 2011

types of field-biologists OR duct tape and imported plastic rings

Interesting fact; field gear tends to quickly define what kind of biologist you are. There are about 3-4 categories of field-biologists with occasional hybrids in-between.

1. You could be the nifty REI-type biologist with various field gear made with the newest and fanciest wizz-bang technology including new GPS units with colored screens and probably some form of blue-tooth, SPF and bug-repellent infused clothing, fancy tents, camp chairs that make have foot-rests, thermo-imaging technology, solar panels and of course a solar powered espresso maker. I think anyone who uses those fancy tree-canopy cranes for their research would automatically be in this group.

2. There are the old school biologists with field gear resembling a turn of the century expedition to deepest Africa. These biologists can be recognized by pre 1980 technology in well kept containers, binoculars and a classic field notebook in tow, and inevitably a coffee-peculator that they know exactly how to use, old well-worn coolers from the 1960s or 1970s. Perhaps we could consider these guys 'steam punk' biologists.

I think Jane Goodall (above) would fit into this category.

3. 'Old school' biologists can be easily confused with a similar type that I would call the Woodie-Guthrie /cowboy biologists. These are easily distinguished by (yes ok obvious) a cowboy hat or well worn cap but may also be noted by well worn boots, flannel shirts, field work conducted comfortably while wearing some old blue-jeans, a compass and topo map, and of course a green Stanley thermos. The coffee in a Woodie-Guthrie biologist's thermos incidentally is made one of two ways: the peculator method (above) or cowboy style by throwing some grounds into boiling coffee and then adding cold water prior to drinking to make the grounds drop to the bottom *cool trick right? Indeed, these last two kinds of biologists are full of cool tricks like how to cook a meal in a tin can using the sun, or how to noose a lizard with dental-floss and a stick. Ok and yes... many of my ways of defining these groups are their modes of coffee preparation and for that I apologize but it does hold true to a decent extent.

4. But there remains a final group and a group to which I admit I belong and I call this the duct-tape biologist. These are the biologists that have rigged nearly the entirely of their gear from odds and ends. They could make you a centrifuge from a drill or tube and piece of string. Their tents do not sit on pre-made foot prints but cut pieces of tarps. They do their field work sitting on the ground or on a nice rock or log. A decent portion of their gear is second-hand, hand-made or corner-store purchased and they make their coffee by pouring hot water through a canvass sock (trust me a topic that I will expand on at another time). Their field attire is hodge podge and can cover the range of looks above but only mixed-and matched leading to an overall-effect of Pippi Longstockings or McGyver. Come to think of it McGyver, which I have recently learned is a Spanish verb, would have made an excellent field-biologist.

So why are there these differences in types of biologists? For one it depends on what the person is studying or doing. If you are studying flight or biomechanics of animals you are likely an REI biologist because frankly you cannot Jerry-rig a high-speed video camera. If you do something considered 'classic biology' like behavioral observations of animals you may or may not find yourself more like the 2nd type of biologist in the field with just your eyes, binoculars and a notebook. If your work involves tracking (radio tracking etc.) animals you may be more of a Woodie-Guthrie type transversing the landscape as hobo-esque scientist.

Indeed in light of 'what you do dictates which of these types you may be categorized as' I have found that there are some things that you simply cannot buy... for example a bat traps in general cannot be purchased by typing 'bat trap' into an Amazon search engine. So some McGyver action must be used. I also cannot just search 'bat feces collection pans' and consequently I have become a duct-tape addict. In fact thanks to modern times I have decided to embrace my dependence by purchasing various colors under the valid excuse that hot-pink or yellow duct tape is easier to track down in a dark cave than the classic silver variety. Several people have suggested Duct tape may be a good sponsor for my research and I couldn't agree more (in the photo to the left you can see my bat nets with orange duct tape and my feces collection traps that while you cannot see from the photo are also held together by duct tape).

However there are some surprising things you cannot easily rig no-matter how much duct tape. I could not for the life of me 'make' a syringe or a pesola for that matter (a little scale for weighing things). For me the quintessential example of something unexpected that one must buy is that of little plastic bands with numbers to mark individual bats. I have found myself not only ordering fancy little plastic rings with special numbers for each bat but dependant on ordering them from a company in the United Kingdom! So I guess when you need something special it quickly becomes a narrow market. Are we really surprised that there is only one company known for making little rings with numbers to mark birds and bats? Probably not.

A Mexican Jamaican fruit bat unaware (I assume) that it is wearing a necklace a numbered bead imported from England via the United States.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Disney doesn't really do bats or do they?

So after a fun-filled day with my brother and nephew at Disneyland I started wondering about the role of bats at Disneyland. There are plenty of rides with hippos, lions, birds (a la' Tiki Tiki Tiki room), rides with raccoons, I saw about 4-5 skunks amid other creatures but what about bats? For those of you that know about hidden Mickeys (there is one hidden Mickey on every ride and various ones throughout the park) I decided to investigate the hidden bats of Disneyland and here is what I have found....

While walking into the Indiana Jones ride, there are bats in the 'archaeological site.' In fact they even come with a sign ! In fact the sign was a nice one asking passersby to not disturb the bats! Thanks Mickey! Meanwhile the fussing and buzzing of 'bats' can be heard as you casually enter the ride to explore the Temple of the Forbidden Eye with Indy. Pirates of the Caribbean also has its share of bats at the end of the ride keeping Captain Jack Sparrow company. Never mind that they have glowing eyes (bat eyes do not glow interesting concept however!) On Big Thunder Mountain (a roller coaster ride with a wild west theme) some bats can be seen in a mine!

So why do we care? I would suggest that if one was to spend some time looking though movies Disney or otherwise that bats are used to convey a feeling. Be it that you are entering a cave or mine, that it is night-time, or in other cases that things are 'creepy'. (An interesting association that maybe has less to do with bats and more that we are generally a little more frightened at night and in dark places than in actuality afraid of bats). What if bats went extinct, such as many species of bats in the Eastern US are now close to doing? These Eastern bats are in very serious trouble due to White Nose Syndrome. So while many people may not consciously notice the bats in these rides, or while watching movies it would be a tragedy if future generations no-longer knew them as actual animals and they entered the realm of 'fantasy' together with the spunky mice and talking duck we all grew up with.

Disney and other similar companies hold an amazing potential power for educating kids and the public in general. Happily, I was able to find a blurb about bats from Disney at this site (here).

Disney does fund research and I am curious to know if any of it has been directed at these little cave and night creatures particularly our friends in the Eastern US and those such as charismatic Flying Foxes. As we progress through 2011, the year of the bat here's hoping!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The bats that vamp... VAMPIRES

(an example of a Mythical vampire above and an actual (and rather cute) vampire bat to the right!)

While considering what to write about today and part of me was excited to go on some of my favorite bats- the sucker footed-bats that recently to my dismay were demonstrated to not really BE sucker-footed (long story... don't worry I'll get to this topic soon enough!) But then I thought that maybe that would be jumping ahead and skipping one of the classics.... vampire bats! (Leave it to me to skip the classics! My apologies)!

Did you know there are 3 kinds of vampire bats? When I say 3 kinds I mean 3 species. These are: the common vampire (Desmodus rotundus) (
below you can see a common vampire bat on a cave wall), the Hairy-legged vampire (Diphylla ecaudata) (a face of which you can see to the right with its big eyes), and the White-winged vampire (Diaemus youngi). These bats are unique among all bats in that they are the only species that derive their entire diets from blood. Just to get those numbers straight out of the nearly 1100 bat species 3 are vampire bats. That's not very many. Indeed most bats eat insects or fruit and not blood. A diet of blood is actually fairly difficult because blood does not have all the usual components of a balanced diet and is also full of water meaning these animals need special digestive organs to be able to manage eating blood.

So for those vampire literature affectionados out there it is of note that vampire bats are from the 'New World' i.e. the Americans while most of our classic 'vampire' mythology comes from Europe ('Old World'). Vampires also do not 'suck' blood. They simply bite their host and lap up the blood that drips as a result of the wound. Indeed vampire bats have a very special saliva that prevents clotting (what happens when you develop a scab and you stop bleeding) so that they have a little longer to 'eat' before the wound closes. This special saliva has been researched by scientists and is now used in hospitals in cases where doctors need to prevent clotting in human patients! (Pending future post!...)

While vampire bats may SEEM scary they are quiet nice bats and even share food and are excellent mothers. We do not have vampire bats in the US with the exception of some places in Southern Texas.

Vampire bats are interesting for many reasons but also receive a bad reputation due to their diets. (Click here for a video from Animal Planet).

Other blood-feeding animals that are much more common than vampire bats:

and the less common but incredibly cool

  • Vampire finch (click here for a video)!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Year of the bat

You may have heard of the year of the rat but have you heard of the year of the bat?

Aimed at increasing public awareness of the importance of bats United Nations Environmental Programe, Bat Conservation International, Conservation of Populations of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and have named 2011 'the Year of the Bat!' Please go to if you would like to find out more!

Specifically find out what bat researchers near you are trying to do to help conserve bats by clicking here.

Next week in Mexico (March 26 and 27)

Bosques a Media Luna (click here)

In Australia (9th of April)

Bat box building workshop (click here)

Germany (1-3 April)

Bats between Nature and culture (click here)

Ticked at ticks and 'a day in the life of a tick'

Ok lets get this straight... I am a biologist and I love animals furry, scaly or otherwise. Because I prefer to study animals in the wild I am technically (in most regards a least) a field-biologist at heart. I have done most of my research in places that the average camping enthusiast would not immediately volunteer to venture- places like the Sonoran desert in July or August or the Chihuahan desert during monsoon season. So I am okay with many of the trials and tribulations of field-life: no electricity, sleeping on the ground often without a tent, no showers, avoiding cacti, snakes and flash floods. However... I have a confession. I hate ticks. No really I think they are horrible horrible little animals. Why? Let me just give you a visual depiction of how I view ticks:
I have been bit, stung and harassed by a variety of insects ranging from acacia ants, wasps, Velvet 'ants', to mosquitoes, even one time being bit by a mosquito literally ON my eyelid waking and being met with looks of terror from my fellow field-workers at my Quasimodo-esque appearance. However, I can count on one hand (or at least that was the case until my last trip to the field) the number of ticks I had had the dis-pleasure to encounter. I had convinced myself that my record: one Colorado tick and one Panama tick was due to a genetically coded body chemistry derived from my father's apparent mosquito-repelling composition. This idea was just fine for me- I have to admit that on both previous tick-encounters I had to be literally pinned down during the ridiculously belabored and meticulous process of tick removal...

How do you remove a tick and why should you care?
Carefully... very carefully with heat or something else to provide encouragement to back out of its position and pull its head (see above) out of your body. A warmed piece of metal like tweezers will do the trick. After it starts to wiggle and appeared annoyed you can carefully pull it out without getting its head stuck inside your skin. Can you start to see where my general dislike for ticks is ... embedded? What happens if the head is not removed? Infection. Infection and the perpetual knowledge that you have a nasty little tick head stuck in your skin! Yuck!

The facts:
  • you cannot really feel the tick biting, and wouldn't notice it unless you saw or felt a bump where the tick was attached.
  • ticks CAN carry diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme's Disease but more often or not they are innocent creatures looking for a meal.
  • many mammals are hosts to ticks including deer, cows and bats. Even some lizards and birds are infected by ticks
  • click (HERE) for a video about ticks

So this last trip I discovered that I had a tick but unfortunately everyone was sound asleep. So I was left with two options: 1. Buck up and deal by removing it or 2. desperately wait for help while shuddering in my sleep picturing it munching away at my blood while I try to sleep... I bet I could feel its minuscule jaw wiggling as it ate! I chose (1) to try to remove it with no help to prevent my thrashing while I myself performed the nearly-ritualized removal. The suffering was not as bad as I expected although the process took an excessive 30 minuets! So all was well when the next day after walking to and from the cave for work I found I had no less than 12 more new friends to remove! I can now say I am at least proficient at most tick self-removal (we will not talk about the nearly dime sized 'friend; i had in the center of my back that I had to ask for help with!

So what if we try to picture life through a tick's eyes? What would we see? Would we feel less repulsed? I mean just knowing that the Spanish name for these guys 'garrapata' (leg grabbers) makes I will admit feel a little sorry for them for their unfortunately condition of being born ticks.

"I am so hungry ... I could just cry. The girls left weeks ago when they sensed a warmth below and they jumped terrified entangled in each others legs (all 16 legs 8 each). I did not hear a peep from below and I cannot convince myself that they made it safely. I will never know. I know of only 2 to 3 times when we ticks have been re-united with our loved ones. And now I sit. I wonder and I remember. I told them it was safer to wait until they sensed not just heat but also the CO2 that would let us know that finally an end to our weeks of starvation were at an end. I explained that the CO2 could ONLY be released by a host but heat could be tricky that they should be prudent and wait. But they were desperate. And now I am here. alone. ALONE. And so hungry. It would be fine with the memories of loves lost (my husband died months ago and now I hope that I will find food in time to lay my eggs so he will at least be remembered one day by his 2000 children). I did not ask for this life but it is mine to live and for my children I choose to hold on tightly to this blade of grass waiting... and waiting."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

what is a bat wing anyway?

The scientific name for bats CHIROPTERA provides an answer to this question of 'what is a bat wing'?

Bats have very long finger bones and webbing between each finger except the thumb! (Note a Jamaican fruit bat thumb compared to my own to the left). Other mammals that glide (bats are the only true fliers among mammals) have webbing but just attached to different body parts like from the elbow to knees of some 'flying' squirrels (flying is in quotes because they are technically just gliding i.e. falling gracefully!)
Together webbing and log fingers is what comprises a bat wing. I have tried to demonstrate this in the form of a drawing (below).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Off to Puebla and Artibeus jamaicensis galore

Tomorrow at 7:30 I am meeting one of two Mexican undergraduate students who are accompanying me to my field site in the Mexican state of Puebla. After renting a car, navigating Mexico City we will pick up the second student, load all our materials and drive for about 6 hours through various habitats. The drive starts in the polluted and traffic-heavy streets of Mexico City, transitions to the very densly populated area known as 'Mexico State' and interestingly will pass near to the famous mexican pyramids. Then we drive up in elevation to a coniferous forested area and drop down to a dry desert area that is also the birth-place of corn as we know it! Gradually we will increase in elevation again entering warmer tropical dry forests and eventually cloud forests. Finally we arrive in the area my bats are located that is also home to bannana and coffee farmers!

Because the drive is long we will first secure where we are staying, and ask to use the centrifuge housed at a ranch near (~ 45 mins. away) to the cave and walk to the cave (~half an hour walk across cow pastures) by this time in the dark to put cloths under the bat colonies to collect the food they drop while they eat in the roost!

More news pending our return!

Meanwhile- bats or bust!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lovely Leptos

I just got back from helping a student at the Mexican university UNAM with his thesis research on these gorgeous bats: Leptonycteris or Mexican Long-tounged bats. Leptonycteris or 'Leptos' for short, eat nectar and as you can see they get pollen stuck to their fur (the fuzzy white stuff on his head) which they take from flower to flower pollenating the plants they visit similar to bees. To understand how much energy these little bats need to obtain from their food and how much energy they use nightly we used something called 'the doubly labeled water method' which I will explain in another post so stay tuned. Meanwhile- recall bats are nocturnal so after working all night with a small break and again at 4am-6am I am going to say 'good-night' for now!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

World War II's Other Secret Weapon- BAT BOMB

Believe it or not but during World War II plans were made and nearly successfully executed to attach tiny bombs onto bats. These bats would do what bats do- find nice areas to roost inside homes, with a catch, they had a bomb with them wherever they decided to call home. Because homes in Japan were made of wood and paper the idea was that bombs would destroy houses that were common throughout Japan.

Plans for what became called Project X-Ray was hatched by Donald Griffin, a Harvard scientist and famous bat researcher and a very young Jack Couffer among others.

An excellent and often funny book on the topic titled Bat Bomb by Jack Couffer tells the whole story. A famous bat named 'Flamethrower' is also discussed in the book. Flamethrower was a Mastiff bat (Eumops perotis) which is the largest bat that occurs in the US, weighing around 60 grams (~2 oz). Because the bombs that were designed for bats to carry needed to be small and light-weight Flamethrower who was tame was used as a model for various prototypes. The problem however was that Flamethrower as a Mastiff bat was much larger than the bats that were going to be used for Project X-Ray! Needless to say the project had so many problems (including unplanned bat-initiated explosions!) that it never went into action.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

White nose syndrome- what is it?

White nose syndrome is a disease that infects bats and was first discovered in 2006. This disease kills bats while they are hibernating and was named for the unusual fuzzy white fungus that is evident on the nose of the some infected bats (click here to see photos).

This disease has killed bats in numerous states in the eastern US:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • New Hampshire
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

And in Canada

  • Ontario
  • Quebec

It is estimated that over 1 million bats have died from this disease. The causes of white nose syndrome are still somewhat unclear however what is known is that a fungus previously undescribed (Geomyces destructans) infects the skin of bats infected by white nose syndrome. Bats that usually hibernate during the winter are having difficulties maintaining the fat deposits that they metabolize (break down) for energy during the winter. Without the fat stores required for hibernation, bats are staying active during cold winter temperatures which is energetically expensive particularly because food (insects) is limited during winter months.

Researchers are very concerned that the disease is moving west. Unfortunately the fungus associated with White Nose Syndrome has already been found in Oklahoma and Missouri.

Learn more about this disease by clicking HERE.