All Articles by micaelajemison

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Five awesome bat videos for National Bat Week!

Bat week 2014 has just begun and already some amazing bat videos are being shared around the web. Here are five of my favorites that I have come across so far.

1.  Batman and Superman join forces to help save the bats

Hollywood is finally joining the crusade to save our bats! Stars of the new Batman and Superman movies,  Zack Snyder, Ben Affleck and Amy Adams, tell us why it’s important to save bats. Check out the Save the Bats Campaign.

2. Bats: Wonders of the Night

If you collected every species of mammal on earth, one in four would be a bat. Isn’t that amazing? The team at It’s Ok to Be Smart explores the world of bats and visits the largest bat colony in the world —Bracken Cave in Texas.

3. What is happening to North America’s bats? Learn about White-nose Syndrome.

White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a disease caused by a fungus, Geomyces destructans, that is threatening cave-hibernating bat populations in North America. Learn more about white-nose syndrome and the efforts made by U.S. National Park Service respond to this deadly disease.

4. Are You Afraid Of Bats? Meet a ghost bat!

Bats are often portrayed as villainous, dark natured animals but in reality even the strangest of the bat family have their place. Meet Patrick, an Australian ghost bat who definitely does not live up to his scary name.

5. Into the Bat Caves of Kenya: Pt. I

This video made me so jealous! Join Emily Graslie from Chicago’s Field Museum as she  accompanies bat researcher Bruce Patterson on a field expedition into the bat caves of Kenya. Just awesome.

Have you seen any other awesome bat videos this week? Let me know so I can share them!

Opportunity to help save a bat species

It isn’t often that an opportunity comes along where one person could make a real difference in the survival of a species. But the new PHd opportunity offered by the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment to work on the critically endangered Christmas Island Flying-fox (Pteropus melanomas natalis) does just that.

Christmas Island Flying-fox
Christmas Island Flying-fox

Christmas Island is one of Australia’s most remote and impressive natural wonders. It is home to the unique annual red crab migration, rare and unusual birds and, until recently, two bat species.

christmas Island MAP

The Christmas Island Flying-fox is now the last remaining bat species on the island and it is in real trouble.  The last individual of it’s only other neighboring bat species, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi) was recorded in late August 2009. Two decades earlier the island’s population of pipistrelles had been healthy. However a mix of human impacts and unknown factors on the island lead to the species’ sharp decline and to many scientists dismay, its extinction.

Christmas Island Pipistrelle (Photo: Lindy Lumsden)
Christmas Island Pipistrelle (Photo: Lindy Lumsden)
A Monograph of the Chirstmas Island Flying-fox - Andrews, C.W. (1900), British Museum of Natural History, London
A Monograph of the Chirstmas Island Flying-fox – Andrews, C.W. (1900), British Museum of Natural History, London

The Christmas Island Flying-fox is now facing a similar uncertain future. The species has declined dramatically in numbers over the last three generations, leading to its listed as Critically Endangered by the Commonwealth Scientific Committee in January 2014. Before we can take actions to help save this species from extinction, we first need to understand which threatening processes, such as habitat alteration, predation and competition from invasive species, are making the greatest impact on the species.

This PHd offers a unique opportunity to someone to make a real impact to a species’ survival and I encourage bat passionate candidates from around the world to apply!

 

 

 

 

Bat myths – where did they come from and what can we do about it?

There are many cultural beliefs associated with bats. While not disliked or mistrusted by all, bats – to their detriment – have been the subject of myths and legends in many cultures for hundreds or indeed, thousands of years.

bat hair myth

Their “unusual” physical form

Myths and legends frequently associate bats with darkness and evil. This negative attitude towards bats is thought to stem from the difficulty many people find in comprehending their “unusual” physical form. Seen as ambiguous creatures, both flying like birds and also possessing hair and teeth like mammals, bats are an animal people struggle to identify with as their appearance is so different from more “normal” animals. This, along with their nocturnal lifestyle and unusual roosting habits, has led to many of the myths associating bats with evil or deceit.

Lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros) bats roosting - Photo: Jessicajil
Lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros) bats roosting – Photo: Jessicajil

Stretching the truth for a good story

Myths tell us bats are scary and dangerous. This theme is found in beliefs such as; bats will drink your blood, get stuck in your hair, will deliberately attack you or will put you at great danger from disease. While several of these myths may be based on fact, for the most part these myths are false or grossly exaggerate the truth.

Vampire bats use heat sensors to identify a spot with blood vessels near the surface of the skin to bite. They then create a small incision with their teeth and lap up blood from the wound, just like a kitten!
Vampire bats use heat sensors to identify a spot with blood vessels near the surface of the skin to bite. They then create a small incision with their teeth and lap up blood from the wound, just like a kitten!

For example there are only three species of vampire bat (out of 1300+ bat species found worldwide) that do drink blood, and all three are only found in Central and South America.

While bats will not get stuck in your hair or deliberately attack you, they are known to carry diseases that can infect humans, however this could be said of many species including the cats and dogs we share our homes with. Many of these myths have been perpetuated through literature, film and old wives tales. Works from famous writers such as William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker (author of “Dracula”) have contributed to such myths and legends that perpetuate fear in people, as they associate bats with graveyards, vampires, death and the devil.

Dracula movie poster - 1931
Dracula movie poster – 1931
Bats the American science fiction monster horror thriller film - 1999
Bats the American science fiction monster horror thriller film – 1999

Alongside the association of bats with nightmarish themes in literature, bats feature heavily – again with negatively – in everyday phrases across western societies. Phrases such as “blind as a bat”, “bat out of hell” or the use of the term “batty” (meaning silly or even mad) have also contributed to the way people perceive bats. It is this combination of myths, folklore, literature and localized sayings that has most likely led to bats being named as one of the least liked animals, even though most people have never interacted with a bat before.

Myths spread from ancient cultures

Many of these bat myths and legends common in the western world have origins from Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian cultures. In ancient Rome, bats were nailed to the door of the house as a protection from witches and diseases. In fact it was believed at that time, that their silent presence announced the arrival of an accident or a great storm. 

Interestingly these myths have spread to most western societies even though many countries, particularly those in the southern hemisphere, do not necessarily have the same types of bats as the regions where the myths orginated.  Within Chiroptera, the mammal order that encompasses all bats, two distinct groups are found. The first are the small, insect eating bats called Microchiroptera (micro-bats). Bats within this group include those that roost in caves or in tree cavities and are found worldwide.

Giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus - Photo: Gregg Yan.
Giant golden-crowned flying fox, Acerodon jubatus – Photo: Gregg Yan.

The second is Megachiroptera (mega-bats), a group that includes all the large bats, including flying-foxes, which predominately eat fruit and nectar. This group is mainly confined to south-east Asia and the Pacific, including India and Australia. The absence of mega-bats from areas in the northern hemisphere from where many of the myths and prejudices were founded indicates that these legends were originally based on misunderstandings of micro-bat species. In many countries like Australia, the use of the generic term “bat” has allowed the extension of these cultural prejudices to encompass mega-bats (including flying-foxes) despite the many physical and ecological differences between them and their smaller counterparts.

So how do we change this negative view towards bats?

Unfortunately conservationists and bat scientists alike face an uphill battle in trying to educate communities about the real nature of these misunderstood creatures. The media is currently our biggest obstacle but ironically it could also be our biggest ally if we could overcome its tendency for sensationalism.

DevilBat newspaperJournalists commonly use links to cultural legends and existing belief systems to make their stories resonate with their audiences. These connections have tremendous power through their symbolism, implied meaning and widespread recognition – that is why sensationalist headlines like “This Terrifying Little Creature Is Actually Much Deadlier Than You Probably Thought” recently published by Upworthy.com attracts so many readers. This combination of culturally engrained beliefs with real-world wildlife problems, such as the spread of zoonotic disease, within media reporting makes it harder not only for the public to separate the two but also for bat advocates to convince journalists to report on these issues without reference these cultural prejudices.

It is up to bat advocates to work with journalists to show them how bat stories can be just as fascinating to their audiences without references to common myths and legends. The real world of bats is much more captivating than any old wives tale could ever be. We just need to show them.

Common tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) - Costa Rica
Common tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) – Costa Rica

Bats come in all shapes and sizes

Bats are mammals belonging to the order Chiroptera, a name of Greek origin meaning “hand-wing,” which accurately describes the animal’s most unusual anatomical feature. Their forelimbs form webbed wings, making them the only mammals naturally capable of true and sustained flight. By contrast, other mammals said to fly, such as flying squirrels and gliding possums, can only glide for short distances. Unlike birds, bats do not flap their entire forelimbs, but instead flap their spread-out digits, which are very long and covered with a thin membrane.

Did you know that humans, birds, and bats have the exact same types of bones in their forearm? The bones look different as they have been modified to have different functions.
Did you know that humans, birds, and bats have the exact same types of bones in their forearm? The bones look different as they have been modified to have different functions.

Within Chiroptera two distinct groups or sub-orders are found. The first are the small, insect eating bats called Microchiroptera (micro-bats). Bats within this group include those that roost in caves or in tree cavities and are found worldwide. The second is Megachiroptera (mega-bats), a group that includes all the large bats, including flying-foxes, which predominately eat fruit and nectar. This group is mainly confined to south-east Asia and the Pacific, including India and Australia. One of the largest bats in the world, the Giant golden-crowned flying-fox, Acerodon jubatus, comes from this region,  calling the forests of the Philippines home. 

Giant golden-crowned flying fox has a wingspan of 1.7m (5 ft 7 in)
Giant golden-crowned flying fox has a wingspan of 1.7m (5 ft 7 in)

Even though the names imply otherwise, not all Megabats are larger than Microbats. While certain species of flying-foxes can have wingspans of up to 152cm (5 feet), other flower-feeding members such as the blossom bats, which include the Common blossom bat, have wingspans as small as 7.2cm (2.8 inches).

Some species of Microchiroptera however are very tiny like their name implies. The smallest of this group is probably the Philippine bamboo bat, Tylonycteris pachypus.  This bat is about the size of a bumble bee and is among the smallest mammals on earth, measuring about 40 millimetres (1.6 in) in length and weighing only 1.4 grams (0.05 ounce). Being so small enables them to roost in small groups in the internodes of bamboo.

Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) emerging from daytime bamboo hideout
Lesser Bamboo Bat (Tylonycteris pachypus) emerging from daytime bamboo hideout

The largest microbat is the tropical American false vampire, Vampyrum spectrum, with a wingspan of up to 1m  (40 inches). It is carnivorous, eating birds and small mammals. This species occurs throughout Veracruz (Mexico) to Ecuador and Peru, Bolivia, north and southwest Brazil, and Guianas; It is also found on Trinidad. 

Feature image courtesy of Andrea Janda

What is it like to find a new bat species?

One of the greatest privileges of working at the Smithsonian is that you get to be on hand when exciting discoveries happen, like finding a new bat species!

My friend and fellow bat specialist Ricardo Moratelli has been working on finding new bat species for over 10 years! His focus is on the Myotis genus, one of the most difficult Neotropical genera of bats to understand. So far he as found 6 new species to science, including the recent golden bat species, Myotis midastactus.  

In an article for Smithsonian Science, I ask Ricardo what it is like to be a bat detective finding new species!! 

Bolivia’s golden bat: one of six new species found by the Smithsonian’s bat detective

Ricardo Moratelli, a scientist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Brazil) and post-doctoral fellow at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Ricardo Moratelli, a scientist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Brazil) and post-doctoral fellow at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

 

Squeak to me baby! Female bats prefer mates with high-pitched voices.

Every female has a certain something they are looking for in a mate. In humans, women often prefer males with low voices, but in bats it may be the opposite.

New research published by Emma Teeling, an associate professor at University College Dublin’s school of biology and environmental science, has discovered male bats with higher-pitched sonar calls find more mates and father a higher number of babies.

Mehely's horseshoe bat -Rhinolophus mehelyi Photo: F. C. Robiller
Mehely’s horseshoe bat -Rhinolophus mehelyi Photo: F. C. Robiller

Bats use echolocation, a series of radar-like squeaks, to help navigate and find food while on the prowl at night. The sound waves that bounce back then help them to hone in on a good meal or find the best route home.

By following Mehely’s horseshoe bats in Tunisia and Bulgaria, Teeling and her team found a third use for their high-pitched calls – sizing up potential mates.

“High frequency calls indicate really good body condition, where the male is strong and healthy. The smaller bats did not have such a high frequency” Teeling told the Irish Mirror.

The benefits of males with high-frequency calls certainly did not go unnoticed by the ladies, with females preferentially selecting them to sire their young. This not only sheds new light on the mammals’ mating rituals but also provides evidence for the first time that sexual selection may have played a role in the evolution of echolocation.

It is commonly assumed that echolocation has been shaped solely by ecology via natural selection – primarily for abilities in orientation and food detection. However Teeling’s study demonstrated for the first time, using a novel behavioral, ecological and genetic approach, that echolocation calls play a role in female mate choice.

So, if high-pitched Casanovas can find more sexual partners, why don’t all bats have high-frequency calls?

“Having a higher echolocation call might mean more mates and babies, but its high frequency also makes it more difficult to find food. Essentially it is an attractive handicap, a little like a peacock’s tail” Teeling said.

Echolocation calls are not the only mode of communication that bats use. All species also have a rich repertoire of social calls not used in finding food or their way home. The next step in understanding the role of sexual selection in the evolution of bat calls would be to test these social calls and to expand the research to include a wider range of bat species.

This study was published in PLOS ONE

Feature image courtesy of Johannes Lundberg

 

The Eastern tube-nosed bat

Tube-nosed bats are some of the strangest looking bats you might find, but in a weird way they are also some of the most endearing!

Eastern Tube-Nosed Bat - Nyctimene robinsoni
Eastern Tube-Nosed Bat – Nyctimene robinsoni

The Queensland or Eastern tube-nosed bat, Nyctimene robinsoni, is a megabat in the family Pteropodidae that lives in northeastern Australia. As its name suggests, these bats have long tubular nostrils. Scientists are not really sure why these tubes evolved but they have several theories as to what purpose they serve.

Eastern tube-nosed bats eat mainly fruit and nectar from the rainforest canopy. Some scientists believe that their tube-like nostrils to help the bats breath, like a snorkel, when they are eating a juicy fruit! Other theories include roles in olfaction, acting like stereo nostrils, allowing the bat to home in on a piece fruit in the rainforest understory.

Tube-nosed bats that live in rainforest habitat often have a green tinge to their wings or fur, which helps keep them hidden in foliage during the day. Eastern tube-nosed bats are a rich brown colour, with a greyish head. Unlike other fruit bats, they prefer to roost alone in thick vegetation. Their sparse yellow to green spots on their wings and ears helps to camouflage them when they wrap themselves in their wings.

At night they fly rapidly and with great maneuverability just above or below the forest canopy, making a distinctive, high-pitched whistling call. Mating occurs from July to September and a single young is born after a gestation period of 3-3.5 months.

This species is moderately common in the northern part of their range in Queensland, but is listed as vulnerable New South Wales.

Eastern Tube-nosed Bat - Photo: Micheal Pennay
Eastern Tube-nosed Bat – Photo: Micheal Pennay

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do Bats Transmit so many Diseases like Ebola?

The connection between bats and diseases that can harm humans has been a sensitive topic for most bat scientists and conservationists for decades. As a scientist it is not an easy discussion to have with the public, as we still know very little about the relationship between these zoonotic diseases and bats. This, coupled with the public’s inherent mistrust of bats due to engrained cultural beliefs and myths that bats are evil or dirty, makes rational discussion of this important topic all the more difficult.

This is why I applaud Minute Earth’s efforts with their new video exploring the connection between bats and disease. When they came to me a month or so ago for advice, like most bat scientists, I was at first skeptical and defensive. Many scientists in the past, including myself, have had to deal with the trap most media fall into – sensationalism and fear mongering . To finally see science communication on this topic that is not inflammatory yet does not shy away from the issues is refreshing.

Thank you Minute Earth for showing the scientific community that communication about this sensitive topic can be done in a fun and approachable way.

 

The Honduran White Bat (Ectophylla alba)

This bat has snow-white fur and a contrasting yellow nose and ears. Their endearing complexion along with their unusual roosting habits makes them a favorite among bat enthusiasts!

These bats are one of only a few known worldwide to construct their own roosts. Most bats rely on existing structures, natural or otherwise, or simply roost beneath tree bark or on branches, concealed in the foliage. Honduran white bats however construct their own shelter by biting the side veins extending out from the midrib of the large leaves of the Heliconia plant, causing them to fold down to form a ‘tent’. While we understand that this must be the way the bats make their shelter from observing the tent construction over several days, hardly anyone has actually observed the bats in the act of modifying a leaf.

Leaf tent and a roosting Honduran White Bat - Le Salva Biological Research Station, Costa Rica
Leaf tent and a roosting Honduran White Bat – Le Salva Biological Research Station, Costa Rica Photo: Micaela Jemison

Being able to make your own roost is a handy skill when roosts are unavailable or uncommon in tropical forests. They also provide advantages in enabling the bats to be more easily alerted to approaching predators, such as snakes or primates. Tents are often high off the ground with few or no obstructions directly below, providing a clear view of approaching predators and allowing them to make a quick escape. Tent-making bats are also sensitive to disturbance of the surrounding foliage, which could signal an approaching predator, or an excited bat ecologist trying to capture the bats roosting beneath the leaf!

The social system of these little fruit-eating bats is also quite interesting. Honduran white bats are polygynous, meaning that they form harems, made up of a single male and several adult females. The roosting group is typically made up of five to 15 bats and the male rigorously defends his harem or tent against intruders and challengers. How long these groups stay together and how the group members are related to each other, are factors that are largely unknown.

Ectophylla alba By Geoff Gallice from Gainesville, FL, USA (Honduran tent bat  Uploaded by Leyo) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Honduran tent bat Photo: Geoff Gallice, Gainesville, FL, USA via Wikimedia Commons
These bats are truly some of the most beautiful you will ever see and I was luckily enough to find some in the rainforests of Costa Rica. They are also found in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama but unfortunately they are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List due to their significant decline (but at a rate of less than 30% over ten years) due to human population density and habitat conversion.

New Mormopterus species honors a true bat lady.

One of the biggest honors you can ever receive, as a biologist, is to have a species named after you. Just that happened last week to a dear friend and mentor of mine Dr. Lindy Lumsden, who had a species of free-tailed bat named after her.

New species, Mormopterus lumsdenae, named after Dr. Lindy Lumsden.
New species, Mormopterus lumsdenae, named after Dr. Lindy Lumsden.

The Northern Free-tailed Bat, now known as Mormopterus lumsdenae, is found in the northern regions of Australia across the states of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. It is one of three new species for this genus having been recently described in a paper published in the Australian Journal of Zoology. This new research published by Reardon et al. is important not only because it honors my dear friend, but also because it finally sheds light on a taxonomic group whose uncertainty has been a longstanding impediment to research and conservation efforts.

Members of this genus have been notoriously hard to identify for a long time mainly because they all look incredibly similar in the field. Indeed for a long time several species of this genus could be distinguished only by the structure of the glans penis, which requires some very intimate examinations and large magnifying glasses. It was Lindy who showed me how to do this when she took me on my first ever field trip catching bats, something I am not likely to ever forget!

Species of the genus Mormopterus are some of my personal favorites, as these bats are not only some of the first I ever had the privilege to catch but they also have interesting little behaviors as well. For example, instead of desperately trying to get away like most microbats do when you trap them, often Mormopterus species like to play dead. It comes in very handy when you are trying to take measurements, as they are not always struggling to get away!

Dr. Lindy Lumsden, Wildlife Ecology team leader for the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research

I think it is very fitting that Lindy have a Mormopterus species named after her as Lindy is well known for having two little bats of this genus help her with the hundreds if not thousands of public talks she has done over the years. If you were to ask any of the participants what their favorite memory was from one of Lindy’s talks, no doubt they would mention George or Grump. These two little Mormopterus bats came to Lindy a long time ago and could not be released back into the wild. So instead, Lindy looked after them, believing that they may only live six months to a year as no one had ever kept these bats in captivity. Twenty plus years later Lindy was still taking them to public talks, showing children to pensioners how beautiful these little creatures truly are. George sadly passed away in 2012 but Grump, although retired from public life, is still going strong.

Lindy has always had a passion for bats, something that she has not only passed on to me but also the thousands of people she has come across in her many years of teaching students, giving public talks and advocating for the conservation of bats. I commend Terry Reardon and his colleagues for not only a truly important piece of taxonomic work that will help the conservation of these species, but also the wisdom for celebrating a dedicated scientist with the highest honor her colleagues could bestow.