International efforts for bat conservation growing 

Courtesy: BCI/Shutterstock

There is one mammal in Colombia that rarely gets the attention it deserves compared to the humpback whale, pink river dolphin, spectacled bear, monkeys or jaguars. In the plethora of this country’s biodiversity, bats are fundamental to ecosystem preservation and classified among the most vulnerable species. “Bats lead us to the best opportunities to protect nature anywhere in the world,” claims Mike Daulton, executive director of Bat Conservation International (BCI), organization that over 40 years has worked to prevent the extinction of bats by protecting endangered habitats.

Among the many locations in Colombia where bats survive are caves and old mines given their ideal combinations of humidity, temperature, and lack of predators. Bats inhabit the entire country, from tropical rainforests to swamp and cattle-grazing lowlands, Andean forest and high-altitude wetlands. According to BCI, there are more than 1,400 species of bats worldwide, of which 217 have been identified in Colombia, and country with the second highest bat diversity on the planet after Indonesia.

BCI’s new high-precision technology workflow, known as Geographic Information System, offers scientists the opportunity to accurately locate bat-friendly mines, and thereby protect populations essential to food security. “Bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers of numerous fruits, cacti and other plants, which would disappear without the bat species on which they depend,” highlights Daulton.

“In United States, bats are essential for controlling insect populations, their primary prey, and even consume crop pests in large numbers, reducing the need for large-scale pesticide use,” he said. BCI staff (about 30 employees) work on the preservation of 35 critically endangered bat species, three of which are in the United States.

The Latin American and Caribbean Network for the Conservation of Bats was started in 2007 and now counts with 23 member nations. The network is run by professor and curator of mammals Santiago Fernando Burneo Núñez. According to Burneo Núñez, member nations share research on general projects (inventories and monitoring), ecology; biogeography; evolution; natural history and education, the latter focused on children and youngsters residing in rural communities.

“Each region is home to a particular community of species that is adapted to the forests and natural resources it offers. Due to the great richness of species, trophic classifications are often used to understand them and, of course, each trophic guild has its characteristics and, in addition, offers particular environmental services” says Burneo Núñez.

Among the bat classifications are insectivores, frugivores, nectarivores and carnivores, all fundamental for seed germination, pollination, rehabilitating deforested areas and natural control of invasive populations that maintain agricultural supply chains essential to humans. As bats are mostly active at night, they take over from hummingbirds and Western honey bees in pollinating their surroundings. “Despite the enormous wealth of species that inhabit the different ecosystems of Colombia, the daily perception of bats varies from exciting to terrifying or dangerous,” states Lina Marcela García of Humboldt Institute.

The department that accounts for 37 of Colombia’s 217 bat species is Caldas.

“There are numerous popular misconceptions, or negative concepts, often associated with horror films, that reflect a lack of understanding of the many virtues and important role these mammals play in both ecosystem health and human well-being,” adds García. “It is time to replace the myths from a perspective based on information and show the bright side of this story.” Only three species native to the Americas are classified as carnivorous among the 1,400 worldwide.  The so-called “vampire bat” feeds mainly on small reptiles, tapirs, birds and cattle where forests have been replaced by grassland.