They Only Come out at Night: The Royal Ontario Museum Has Partnered with Students to Research the Only Mammals That Can Truly Fly

By Lim, Burton | Alternatives Journal, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

They Only Come out at Night: The Royal Ontario Museum Has Partnered with Students to Research the Only Mammals That Can Truly Fly


Lim, Burton, Alternatives Journal


BATS ARE NOT EVIL and they don't fly into your hair. But they are a very integral part of the planet's ecosystems and the worldwide economy. The only mammals capable of self-powered flight are important contributors to seed dispersal and flower pollination, ensuring a healthy and naturally regenerating tropical forest. Every night, insect-eating bats throughout the world also consume half their body weight in food, including agricultural pests that would otherwise be damaging crops.

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Birds provide the same kind of benefits during the day, but in another ecological niche and interacting with different plants and prey. The free ecosystem services that more than 1,200 species of bats provide to humans and society are not easily duplicated by our technological ingenuity. Pesticides, for example, can control insects but also damage the environment.

For 25 years I've studied mammals in the field and laboratories around the world, and have been returning regularly to the tropical rainforest of Guyana, including in 2011 to begin a bat-monitoring project. When most field researchers are comfortably cocooned in their hammocks, those of us on the midnight shift flick on our headlights and head out into the darkness, hoping to find flying mammals tangled up in the bat nets. We identify each species and record the time of capture, sex, age, forearm length and weight. Some bats are kept and prepared as museum specimens to document species diversity, but most are released after being marked by a wing-punch, which is similar in size to spiny palm thorn wounds that already pockmark many of them.

Since the start of the project, we've identified two more species of bats in one of the most biodiverse habitats in South America. Just as diverse is the group of university students from the UK, US and Canada who stay up into the wee hours to help collect this ecological data, which is used to monitor the state of the vast carbon sink known as Iwokrama Forest.

It's only the second year of the study, but by standardizing our methodology--sampling the same sites at the same time of year using the same number of nets--we obtain valuable long-term information about potential environmental changes. Do the relative abundance or diversity of species at the different lowland sites change over time? Do species fluctuations related to human-induced climate change result from activities considered to be sustainable development, or do they come from natural phenomena such as EI Nino?

These are just two of the many questions that a slew of international student volunteers will help to answer in the years to come. Operation Wallacea, a non-governmental organization based in the UK, brings together a wide range of academic research, conservation initiatives and student education into projects scattered throughout the world.

I like to think that every participant in the Guyana project goes home with a better appreciation of bats and the natural world in general. And from time to time, a student such as Tom Horsley is inspired to keep studying these important denizens of the night. Horsley began as a wide-eyed volunteer in 2011 and came back the following year as my bat field assistant, to help with the next crop of students. He's returning to Guyana this year to collect data for his master's thesis at Angelo State University in Texas on the ecological importance of fruit-eating bats to seed dispersal and forest regeneration.

On the 2012 fieldtrip to Guyana, our research team also included a student from the new Environmental Visual Communication (EVC) program at Fleming College--a unique collaboration between a post-secondary school in Peterborough, Ontario, and my institution, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. The EVC program is pushing the boundaries of science and multimedia into areas of novel interpretation. Joshua See's photo and video documentation juxtaposes our nocturnal field studies with the knowledge of the indigenous Macushi people, who guide us into their backyard wilderness. …

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