Documenting Billion-Dollar Bats

Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.
Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.


Dr. Sara Bumrungsri, a leading bat ecologist, invited us to help document the essential roles of Cave Nectar Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) in pollinating some of SE Asia’s most ecologically and economically valuable plants near Hat Yai in Thailand’s Songkhla Province. We set up our bat photo studio in Sara’s lab at the Prince of Songkhla University, caught two cave nectar bats in mist nets set beneath durian flowers in an orchard, tamed them so they would go about their normal activities in Merlin’s enclosure, then brought them fresh flowers so he could photographically document their importance as pollinators.


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Angkor Wat and Bats

Angkor WatLiterally thousands of temple ruins are near Siem Reap to explore, and at least three days is recommended to see most of them. In one day we visited ten, and were pleased to find bats in most of them.

The complex of temples known as Angkor was built from the 9th to 13th century by successive Khmer rulers, and the mother of them all is the Angkor Wat Temple, the largest (first Hindu, later Buddhist) temple in the world. Between the 12th and 13th century, when London had a mere population of about 50,000, it is estimated that Angkor had 1,000,000, making it the largest city in the world at the time.  They were the people, under successive Khmer kings, who built these massive construction projects on the scale of the Egyptian Pharaohs’ pyramids.

If you’ve ever seen the Angelina Jolie movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, many of the scenes were filmed at Angkor. I join the chorus and recommend you see Angkor Wat before you die!

At nearby Phnom Kulen National Park, we set up a four-panel bat trap over a small stream in the forest for about an hour, and caught five species of bats. (more…)

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Bat caves of Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang Bat Cave
Wrinkle-lipped bat emergence at one of the caves (Tarum) in Battambang, Cambodia

We spent two nights at the Battambang Bat Caves in Cambodia to photograph the incredible emergences of the Asian wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaerephon plicatus). With help from Thona, our colleague and interpreter, Merlin interviewed the owner of the guano harvesting permit for one of the caves (he called it Tarum). He advised the man to never again use pesticides inside the cave (apparently to kill insects that bothered the guano collectors) and recommended removal of a large dead tree in the emerging bats’ flight path. The tree was causing a traffic jam of bats that greatly increased injuries and predation. This was done immediately. (See the remaining stump, lower left of photo).

Merlin interviewed the guano miner of the Tarum bat cave, Battambang, Cambodia
Merlin spoke to the owner of the guano harvesting permit for the cave he called “Tarum” in Battambang, Cambodia


Jeff Acopian videotaped the bat-watching tourists. Just before the emergence, I perched myself on the small hill under the entrance to photograph the bats. An incredible thunderstorm came through, turning my umbrella inside out. Once it passed, the bats finally emerged. At this same time, Merlin took shelter from the rain beneath a ledge in the cave entrance where he had just seen an approximately seven-foot unidentified snake enter a hole about a meter away. He could only hope the snake wasn’t poisonous.



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Association for Tropical Biology Conference, Asia-Pacific Chapter Meeting 2015

Merlin Tuttle's ATBC plenary lecture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Merlin Tuttle’s 2015 ATBC plenary lecture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Approximately 250 members, representing 22 nations of the ATBC met in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for their 2015 annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Chapter, March 31 to April 3, and Merlin provided a 45-minute plenary lecture titled “The Amazing World of Bats and a Novel View of Conservation.”

Following his talk Merlin co-chaired a parallel symposium with Neil Furey, Understanding and Conserving the Diversity and Ecology of South East Asian Bats. He also served as a judge for student papers and was exceptionally impressed with their well prepared quality.

Finally, due to special interest, Merlin was allotted a room and projector that evening where he answered questions for nearly three more hours. As the word got out regarding how interesting the discussion was, more and more people showed up, and topics ranged widely.

This video is excerpted from Merlin’s closing remarks in the evening Question and Answer Session at the ATBC Annual Meeting in Cambodia.


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Fanged pitcher plants and other shelters

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


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





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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Prey capture success at last!

After several  entire nights of near misses, our bats finally performed flawlessly. Both Dani and Toni worked long hours helping these bats overcome their fear so that they would perform naturally catching prey in front of a camera. Having finally gotten the pictures, we’ve released the bats and they are finally back home in their cave.

The Greater mouse-eared bat, Myotis myotis, catching a katydid









….and catching a beetle



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