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 capital 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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Appreciation barbecue at the field station

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Every field season, it’s a tradition for the field station to hold a barbecue and invite friends and local bat researchers like Teodora Ivanova (holding her baby) who, together with Bjorn Siemers from Germany, started the Tabachka Bat Research Center. Seated two seats back from Teo is one of Bulgaria’s very first bat researchers, Eberhart Undzhyan. Hristiyana “Chris” Stomoayalova (front right) is the landlady for the station, who promptly responded to our calls when the refrigerator and the washing machine broke down. Thanks to all of the friends of the Siemers Bat Research Center for keeping Bjorn’s dream alive!

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A Grey big-eared bat (Plecotus austriacus) emerging from a woodpecker hole

 

 

 

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A Gray Long-eared bat (Plecotus austriacus) emerging from a woodpecker cavity. It is found only in Europe, ranging from Portugal to Moldova and from from Denmark to Greece. These bats are often solitary but form nursery colonies of 10 to 30 females. This is a relatively sedentary species that occupies a wide variety of roosts and habitats. In summer, it roosts mostly in tree cavities and buildings and may also use caves during winter hibernation. It feeds mostly on moths in lowland valleys, including in agricultural landscapes. It is very similar to the Brown long-eared bat, from which it was first distinguished in the 1960s.

These bats frequently roost in woodpecker holes. View more photos in our gallery!

 

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The story behind great action photos

It’s been great fun gathering plants and rocks from the area and re-creating the scene inside the photography MDT_BU_C3_9368-2studio. MDT_BU_C3_9334-2Photographing Bulgarian bats has proven far more difficult than anticipated. For the past five nights Merlin, Toni and Dani have worked all night, shooting hundreds of images nightly of which only about one in hundreds have been really great. Sometimes they worked all night two or three nights in a row without getting a single usable picture.

Building authentic-looking sets has been hard work, but finding sufficient natural prey for the bats to capture in the sets has been even more problematic. Rains and cold nights have continued to hamper activities, however at about 4:30 this morning we finally got some really nice photos.

 

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Portraits: Bats of Bulgaria

Merlin Tuttle and Antonia Hubancheva set the Tuttle trap in front of the cave
Setting the bat trap outside the entrance to the cave

Our first night in the field we set a bat trap in the entrance of Orlova Chuka Cave where we caught six species of bats, four of which we were able to photograph. The others were nursing mothers we had to release. We haven’t been able to capture more bats for the last three days due to unseasonably cold, rainy weather.

Myotis myotis (Greater mouse-eared bat)
Greater Mouse-eared Bat (Myotis myotis)
Myotis capaccinii (Long-fingered Bat)
Long-fingered Bat (Myotis capaccinii)
Mediterranean Horseshoe Bat (R. euryale)
Mediterranean Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus euryale)
Rhinolophus mehelyi (Mehely's Horseshoe Bat)
Mehelyis Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus mehelyi)

Several of these bats will now be kept in captivity for several days, during which time we hope to train them for photographs of catching insects.  Antonia Hubancheva is training the Myotis and Daniela Schmeider is training the Rhinolophus. The next post will probably be a video of training the bats.

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Bats Televised Nationally in Bulgaria

Merlin's talk in Sofia, Bulgaria on Bats of the World
Merlin’s talk about Bats of the World in Sofia

 

Merlin’s talk in Sofia, Bulgaria at the British Council, the educational arm of the British Embassy in Bulgaria, was broadcast on one of Bulgaria’s most popular news programs.  The talk was an introduction to bats worldwide. Afterwards, several interested attendees were invited to join us for lunch in a nearby cafe.

After the talk, we drove five hours to the Siemers Bat Research Field Station in the village of Tabachka where neighbors enthusiastically greeted us, having just seen Merlin on television.MDT_BU_C3_9286-Edit

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The Siemers Bat Field Station in Tabachka, Bulgaria

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Antonia Hubancheva, Daniela Schmieder, Paula and Merlin Tuttle, and local neighbor Georgi Guder at the Siemers bat research field station in Tabachka, Bulgaria.

Our Friday the 13th flight from Paris to Sofia was uneventful. From my window seat on the plane the views of the Alps were spectacular. I hope to go there some day. But this trip we are working in Bulgaria! My Lonely Planet travel guide says:

wild wooded mountain ranges speckled with remote villages and enchanting monasteries to vibrant modern cities and long sandy beaches hugging the Black Sea coast, Bulgaria rewards exploration.”

This is a country of mountains, forests and rivers and a wide diversity of plant and animal life. The Bulgarians tell me they still have bear, wolves and lynx. I’m impressed!

We are at the Siemers Bat Research Station in the quaint village of Tabachka.  There’s a church, a post office and two stores in the village where we can get essentials. And the most essential of essentials is yogurt. Bulgarians are crazy about their yogurt. A favorite summer starter is cold cucumber-yogurt soup called “tarator.” In addition to cucumbers and yogurt, it consists of walnuts, which grow all over the village, and fresh dill. The store was out of fresh dill and promised to provide it later. At dinnertime the dill was retrieved and we were handed a bunch of plants freshly pulled from someone’s garden. That’s what I call a custom order! This place is going to be fun!

Toni has freshly plucked dill for the tarator (cold cucumber-yogurt soup).
Toni with plenty of dill for the tarator (cold cucumber-yogurt soup).

One of the locals, Georgi, welcomed us with a pail of milk straight from his goat, still warm. He brought photographs of some of the bat researchers he met two years ago, when a workshop was held at the station, and a bat photo postcard. He was thrilled to learn that Merlin was the photographer and got his autograph. I’m looking forward to a festival the village is having on June 28th, when we can meet all the local talent!   

 

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Rare Lesser woolly bat caught

Merlin and Koos taking a break from bat netting to eat a South African favorite dish--bobotie http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobotie
Merlin and Koos taking a break from bat netting to eat South Africa’s favorite dish–bobotie–made by Koos’ wife Riekie

Merlin would like to photograph Long-eared bats (Laephotis) catching green stink bugs which are a pest of macademia nut orchards here in South Africa. Koos Steyn has been providing invaluable help in netting and trapping for Long-eared bats on a mountain where they’ve previously been found. But even though the rains have ceased and the temperatures are warming up a little, it’s still cool in the evenings, and we’re not catching very many bats.

 

IMG_1642Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any Long-eared bats, and on our way back to the Taylor’s home, we got a flat tire we had to change.

But the next morning, Koos checked the trap and found a rare Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa) inside. Here are the photos Merlin got.

Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa)
Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa)
Lesser woolly bat (Kerivoula lanosa)
Lesser woolly bat      (Kerivoula lanosa)

We couldn’t have gotten the Lesser woolly bat without Koos Steyn who teaches agronomy at the University of Venda and has his own macademia orchard. Koos has been finishing up his PhD and working with his colleague Peter Taylor in documenting local bats and their feeding behavior for the past several years.

 

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