This rainy February, we visited Los Cedros Biological Reserve in Ecuador.
Roo Vandegrift, and crew, are filming Marrow of the Mountain; a documentary about the mega-mining now in Ecuador. “In 2017, the amount of land available for mining expanded by hundreds of percent, leaving huge swaths of Ecuador’s most sensitive and biodiverse habitats at the mercy of international mining interests. These concessions appeared suddenly and were sold without public knowledge or consent, especially affecting the mineral-rich and endangered Choco Rainforest.” Roo invited MTBC to conduct a bat survey, which could support litigation to stop the illegal gold mining and help protect the reserve’s unique flora and fauna. The data is to track diversity and endemism at Los Cedros, and analyses are submitted to conservation groups and government agencies, like Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the Ecuadorian state Institute for Biodiversity (part of the Ministry of Environment).
Los Cedros Biological Reserve consists of 17,000 acres of premontane wet tropical forest and cloud forest. Of this, 2,650 acres is formerly colonized land, while the remainder is primary forest. The reserve is a southern buffer zone for the 450,000-acre Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, and both are part of the Choco Phytogeographical Zone. The Choco region is one of the most biologically diverse and endemic habitats on Earth.
Part of its charm is the journey to get there. Monica and I left our Quito AirBnB at 5 am to board a 3-hour long bus ride to Chontal, where we met Marc Dragiewicz of Eyes of the World Films. It was then just a short 30-minute truck ride to the trailhead.
During both weeks of our workshops, we encountered periodic rain showers, keeping the normally hot, dry-season temperatures far more comfortable than anticipated. The downside was that we had poor netting results on three nights during the second week. We shared the forest with some interesting characters, such as a black jaguar, which fortunately left us alone, though it likely observed our activities. This one was photographed on a trail camera near one of our netting sites.
We set up a triple-high mist net almost every night, both weeks.
During our two-week stay in Panama’s Cocobolo Nature Reserve, we recorded more than 600 bats of 53 species, more than half the total number known for the entire country. Additional species were netted nearly every night, including two on our final evening. Over our two-weeks of workshops, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and greater fishing bats (Noctilio leporinus) were participant favorites, though an incredible variety of fruit-, nectar-, and insect-eating species were seen. The hardiest of our group members often worked till dawn, bringing in a steady stream of species for portrait photos, especially during the first week. By the second week much more time was devoted to training bats to come on call, especially to locations where Merlin could photograph natural behavior, such as catching katydids.
The new group arrived successfully and with bells on for Week 2.
We have three bats in training. Merlin trained a hairy big-eared bat (Micronycteris hirsuta) for photography. Within 15 minutes it was flying to his hand on call, rewarded with meal worms. Janell Cannon, the famous author of Stella Luna, trained a white-throated round-eared bat (Lophostoma silvicolum) to eat from her hand. Her bat has a very calm temperament. Alexis and Amy trained a Niceforo’s big-eared bat (Trinycteris nicefori) for photography, a very sweet and eager gal.
We’re just finishing up an incredible first week at Cocobolo and already caught 44 species of bats, everything from fishing bats to vampires, not to mention a wide variety of fruit, nectar, and insect eaters. Merlin added 10 additional species to his collection! Pygmy fruit-eating bats were found roosting in leaves they had cut to form “tents”.
Chestnut short-tailed bats were all around camp, feeding on piper fruit.
We caught more than 20 Common vampire bats. Frontier campesinos keep a few livestock not too far away, explaining the presence of so many vampires. Most of these seem to have lots of personality, enabling Merlin to get this cool photo. The trip participants had loads of fun shooting videos of the vampires running around on the ground on all fours.
MTBC’s Bat Adventures in Panama Week 1 group started out from our base camp for an energetic hike to the top of the mountain ridge. Some did it in 3.5 hours, some 6.5 hours, and everything in between. My GPS said I hiked 19,190 steps (about 10 miles!) and burned 2,701 calories. Some will go back at night to net for bats in this cloud forest where they hope to find different species than the ones found at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve banana plants, and along the lower river forest.
Merlin and Daniel Hargreaves, co-founder of Trinibats, have teamed up to co-lead two weeks of bat workshops at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve in Panama. The reserve is over 1,000 acres located about halfway between the Pacific and the Caribbean on the narrow Isthmus of Panama, about 35 miles wide.
“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 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 flowers, as 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.
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.”
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!