A Night with the Bat People

Get an inside look at science as it happens in the Caribbean. This week, join the bat people to study these furry flying critters on St. Kitts.

Feisty bats are measured and weighed.

The bat people don’t have a lot of time to rest. Scientists studying these flying mammals spend their days scouting good locations to catch them and their evenings setting up nets and other bat-catching contraptions. Nights, of course, are spent studying the bats that they catch.

Studying bats is challenging. Bats are smart, so they are not very easy to catch. They use echolocation to find their way in the night, which also helps them see nets and traps. They are also incredibly agile in the air.

The first step is finding places that bats are likely to be. Some species roost in colonies in caves and abandoned buildings, but many live in harder to find spots like trees. The bat team looks for areas near fruit or flowers that bats like, and pathways leading to resources like water. Trails and streams can create natural tunnels through the forest that are used by bats.

Once a promising area is found, mist nets are set up before twilight. These very fine nets are suspended between poles across flyways. Although most bats will notice and avoid them, careless or tired bats fly into them and are caught. Other types of traps can be used as well, and sound recordings are made. Each species makes unique sounds that can be identified from the recordings.

Released on a tree, this bat will take to the sky again.

Captured bats are processed in the field. Processing includes identifying the species and sex of the bat, taking measurements and recording other information. The team records when bats are pregnant or nursing young. Male bats only have visible testes when they are breeding, so this is also recorded. Bats with bald spots or large numbers of parasites are also noted. Once processed, the bats are released.

Although it is a lot of work, studying bats is useful. Bats are important pollinators, seed distributors and insect eaters. Studying them can help us understand if the ecosystem as a whole is healthy. Work on St. Kitts and Nevis may also shed new light on how bats colonized the Lesser Antilles. The data to unlock these secrets is gathered by the team, night by night and bat by bat.

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