Bats: Ecosystem Essentials

In recent years we’ve learned a lot about the importance of protecting pollinators—not just for the sake of our backyard gardens, but for the vital role they play in one out of every three bites of food we eat. So we get behind efforts to save the bees. We build butterfly gardens. And we plant native flowers to attract hummingbirds. But you know who we don’t talk about nearly enough? Bats.

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PHOTO © Greater Good Charities

Fortunately, our Global Discovery Expeditions allow us to get up close and personal with bats and, hopefully in the process, raise awareness that these shy, misunderstood creatures play a vital role in the survival of our ecosystem.

Bats process and move massive amounts of nutrients through the ecosystem. They’re particularly critical in the reestablishment of clear-cut forests—almost all the plants that come up after a forest has been cut down are thanks to bats who dispersed those seeds.

So many species, so little information

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While bats are major players in every ecosystem where they live, we still don’t know a lot about them. So as we work to better understand and protect our planet, we need to better understand and protect bats. In the U.S., the two states with the greatest bat diversity are Texas and Arizona, with 28 and 29 bat species, respectively. One of the reasons why Vietnam is an ideal location for our Global Discovery Expeditions is that the country has more than 120 different bat species.

Up until now, we haven’t had a lot of information about most bat species, or even photos. So during a recent BioBlitz at the Sao La Nature Reserve, a key biodiversity spot in Vietnam, our biologists teamed up with Vietnamese scientists to change that.

How do you catch a bat?

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During a typical BioBlitz, scientists go into the field for a short period to get a quick tally of species in a particular area. They head out when darkness falls and many animals are more active. Bats, however, require a lot more pre-planning than most species.

For bats, we start during the day, assembling a harp trap in front of the entrance to the cave where they live. Like the musical instrument that shares its name, a harp trap consists of a frame with strings running from top to bottom. The bats cannot detect these nylon strings, nor do the strings harm their wings. So, when bats leave the cave at night, they fly right through the strings and safely into the collecting bag at the base of the trap. Our scientists are there waiting to collect the bats and bring them back to camp to study and document them, before releasing them back where we found them.

The information and photos we gather are fed into the massive digital database, and they’re being used by the biologists on our team who are working on a book about the mammals of Vietnam.

By getting a close look at the bats in Vietnam we can get a much better idea of who they are and what we need to do to protect them – and share that knowledge with scientists, students, and enthusiasts worldwide who are working to understand – and celebrate – all that bats contribute to our ecosystems.