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 capital was required to purchase more, further delaying us from keeping bats in our studio.
While waiting for the luggage, the Schöners took us to a peat swamp, one of their primary sites for studying pitcher plants (Nepenthes hemsleyana) that have developed a taste for bat guano. If the light is just right, you can sometimes see silhouettes of the tiny Hardwicke’s Woolly Bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) roosting in the pitchers. This is quite remarkable, considering that most pitcher plant species capture and eat anything that enters, ranging from insects to rats. We had to wade knee deep, sometimes passing close to abundant Bornean Green Keeled Pit Vipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri) beautifully colorful but highly venomous snakes that often perch on limbs and vines along the trails. The Schöners quickly pointed out two of them, warning us to be careful. Merlin could not resist getting as close as possible to one to photograph, making me a tad nervous.
Caroline and Michael led us around the swamp for a couple of hours before they found a pitcher containing a bat. In the meantime, Merlin photographically documented their fascinating research. They had discovered a variety of adaptations these plants have evolved, apparently to accommodate bats specifically. Expanded lids protect against rain. Specially shaped entrances reflect bat echolocation. A conveniently constricted area comfortably supports roosting bats and unusually low water levels inside help bats stay dry.
Despite a challenging start, the next blog will illustrate the highly successful results and how they were made possible.