|Dennis Krusac is an endangered species specialist for the Forest Service, Southern Region, Atlanta, GA. Bob Locke is the director of publications and grants coordinator for Bat Conservation International, Austin, TX.
Bats have gotten a bad rap. In myth and fairytale, from Transylvania to Pennsylvania on a Halloween night, bats are often portrayed as blood-sucking fiends. Actually, bats play vital ecological roles as insect predators, pollinators, and seed dispersers. Many bats migrate seasonally, helping to sustain the ecosystems they depend on.
The world has more than 1,100 species of bats, most of which live in the tropics. Only three bat species, all in Latin America, consume blood. Ironically, saliva from the dreaded vampire bat helps save human lives: It provides a crucial glycoprotein called draculin—the strongest blood thinner known, used for patients suffering from strokes and heart attacks.
Many bats feed on nectar and pollinate countless important plants. Others eat fruit, playing a pivotal role in seed dispersal. Bat-dependent plants include banana, guava, papaya, mango, cashew, durian, dates, and figs. Many medicinal plants also rely on bats.
Fruit bats are also valuable allies in combating deforestation, a major element in climate change. Millions of acres of rainforest are cleared each year, and the first step in reforestation is the emergence of fast-growing, heat-tolerant pioneer plants in clearings. Tropical fruit bats, which favor the fruit of pioneer plants, are major dispersers of their seeds.
In North America, most bats eat insects. Each night, they consume up to their own body weight in insects, including such forest pests as gypsy moth and spruce budworm moth. They help control corn earworm moths, which cost American farmers about $2 billion a year. Researchers have estimated that 100 million Mexican free-tailed bats roosting in Texas consume about 1,000 tons of insects every summer night. That’s tens of millions of pounds of insects that Texas doesn’t have to mess with each year!
Many bats migrate seasonally, including bats that feed on nectar. Their spring migration route from central Mexico to the Southwestern United States is called the “nectar corridor,” a thousand-mile stretch of cacti and agaves blooming in sequence from south to north. Bats pollinate these plants as they go, making the migration as important to the Mexican economy as tequila, which is made from agaves.
Despite their ecological importance, bats are threatened worldwide as their colonies and habitats are destroyed, mainly due to ignorance and misinformation. The two main agave pollinators, the Mexican long-nosed bat and the lesser long-nosed bat, are listed by the U.S. Government as endangered.
The good news is that awareness is growing that bats are in trouble—and that it matters. Forest Service International Programs is working with partners such as Bat Conservation International to protect bat habitat by building the necessary scientific knowledge and training natural resource managers in bat conservation.
International Programs’ support has allowed Bat Conservation International to fund 29 special scholarships for bat conservation research in 17 developing countries over the past 3 years. These awards are helping prepare students from 14 nations to become future leaders in bat research and conservation.
In January 2009, International Programs and Bat Conservation International jointly conducted a Spanish-language workshop in Nicaragua, with hands-on training for land managers and biologists from throughout the region. A similar workshop is planned in Paraguay. Such training promises far-reaching benefits for neotropical bats facing a host of threats.
So the next time you raise a margarita to your lips, you can thank the bat for the tequila you are about to drink—and the conservationists who are protecting its habitat.