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

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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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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

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….and catching a beetle

 

 

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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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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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Adventures in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Shy young elephant, Kruger Nat'l Pk, S. Africa
Shy elephant, Kruger Nat’l Pk, S. Africa

It’s been a few weeks since our adventures in South Africa, particularly our daytrip to Kruger National Park. To tell you the truth, I’m just calming down enough to be able to re-live the experience. Once the photography was deemed accomplished, our most generous hosts Frances and Peter Taylor suggested we take their pickup truck on the two-hour drive to the world-renowned Kruger National Park. Since this was a last-minute whim, we were unable to get reservations to spend the night in the park, so we were day visitors. But we did see many more animals than I ever imagined in one day in the park. On our way into the park via the Punda Maria gate, we went through the town of Thohoyandou, where  The University of Venda is located and where the traffic police were lying in wait. I was stopped for speeding. (more…)

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