In Defense of Accidents

Text by Jen Guyton, photos by Piotr Naskrecki.

This piece has just been published by Thola, the magazine of the Durban Natural Science Museum in Durban, South Africa. To download the original PDF, click here.

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Removing a whispering bat (Nycteris thebaica) from a net at the entrance to a cave on the Cheringoma Plateau in Gorongosa National Park.

Removing a whispering bat (Nycteris thebaica) from a net at the entrance to a cave on the Cheringoma Plateau in Gorongosa National Park.

“Never say ‘oops’. Always say ‘Ah, interesting.’” – Anonymous

The discovery of the world’s first antibiotic by Alexander Fleming was a fortuitous accident. Fleming was known to be brilliant but a bit of a slob, with a penchant for leaving bacterial cultures lying haphazardly around the lab. The story goes that one day, when he returned to the lab, he noticed that mold had blown in from an open window and colonized one of his staphylococci bacterial cultures, killing the Staphylococcus colonies closest to the mold. After some experimentation, he found that the mold, Penicillium, produced a bactericidal substance. And hence, from that first slovenly error, Penicillin was born.

Science is often considered to be a rigid pursuit, carried out by stern people in crisp white lab coats reliably repeating protocol after protocol in strict experimental fashion. At our best, and with a great deal of luck, some science actually works out that way. More often, science, especially in field-based subjects like ecology and geology, is full of blunders and misadventures. Sometimes, as Fleming found out, those blunders can be a way of introducing creativity to the process. Mistakes can be the foundation of discovery.

Looking for roosting bats in a shallow cave on Mount Gorongosa.

Looking for roosting bats in a shallow cave on Mount Gorongosa.

Over the past four years, I’ve been working as a biologist in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Among other things, I study bats, and a few of my most exciting bat findings have been the result of an accident. A momentary lapse in perfect technique, a breakdown of ritual. A slip in the protocol that definitely, definitely wasn’t supposed to happen.

In 2015, I was on a biodiversity survey in the remote reaches of the park with a handful of other scientists. Just before dusk I hurried down to where I’d set a bat mistnet across a wide stream. It was time to open it. Getting there required crossing the stream via a bank of wet, algae-covered rocks. Carrying gear in both hands and a small pack on my hip, I rushed across, the stream to my left and a deep pool to my right. A few steps in, my attention wavered, and I felt my rubber boot slip.

Instinctively, I jabbed the fiberglass net pole I was holding into the rocks to try and catch my balance. With a crack it broke in half, and I tumbled into the pool. I dragged myself out and blundered across to open the net in my soggy rubber boots.

Dripping wet, I hunkered down in some bushes from which I could see the whole net, allowing me to check it quickly without stomping around and scaring anything off. I took a deep breath and collected myself. As darkness fell, I felt rising panic as I realized that I had the expedition leader’s bat detector in my bag. The bag that was resting on my hip, saturated to the core.

I leapt up and rushed over to the stream, looking to see whether the expedition leader, who had passed by earlier, was still nearby. Then I saw a tiny flicker in the far corner of the net. I shone my spotlight on it: a bird. It had been in a sagging corner of the far, bottom bag of the net, and I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting in the bushes. This corner had been just hidden from view by a tree branch coming off the streambank.

I waded through the stream and realized that it wasn’t a bird at all – it was the most brilliantly patterned bat I had ever seen. This was none other than Welwitsch’s myotis (Myotis welwitschii), one of the most beautiful bats in Africa and a species that I’d dreamt about seeing alive. I splashed over to the bat and carefully removed it from the net. It was a new record for the park, the first M. welwitschii ever found in Gorongosa. And had I not taken my little swim and had a moment of panic about a sodden piece of expensive equipment (which was fine, in the end), I would never have leapt up in panic and noticed that tiny hidden corner of the net. In all likelihood the bat would have chewed or wiggled its way out and flitted like a whisper of smoke into the black night. I would never have known it was there at all.

Welwitsch's myotis (Myotis welwitschii).

Welwitsch's myotis (Myotis welwitschii).

Another night, having had little luck, I decided to try something new. There was a road that passed through wooded grassland, and it looked like a great flyway. I wanted to span a gap between two trees that flanked the road, so I decided to stack two nets. As I opened the nets, I realized that my poles were bending inward at the top and causing the top net to sag. I tightened the guy lines to coerce the poles into standing upright. No luck. I tightened them some more. And a little bit more. And a little… crack! One of my fiberglass poles snapped right at the guy line, bringing the whole assembly to the ground.

It was my last pole. Desperate, I taped its ragged ends together and haphazardly propped the net back up. I had no tension, and the bottom net was laying half on the ground, but it would have to do.  When I checked the net half an hour later, my hopes dragging almost as much as that bottom net, I found a long-eared figure flapping on the ground, caught in the part of the net that had been laying on the dirt. It was a large-eared whispering bat (Nycteris macrotis), another new species for the park. Whispering bats are known to land on surfaces to scoop up prey, so maybe there had been a particularly enticing insect trapped among the fallen folds. It was sloppy mistnetting, alright, but I haven’t seen another N. macrotis since.

Large-eared whispering bat (Nycteris macrotis).

Large-eared whispering bat (Nycteris macrotis).

The final night of the survey, exhausted, my equipment beaten and abused by harsh weather and confused technicians, I set up my last two, barely useable nets, both of them sagging against broken trammel lines and feathering at the edges of gaping holes. It was quiet. A few hours after dark, feeling resigned, I decided to take the nets down. I dismantled the first and trekked up the road to the second. As I shone my spotlight on the net, I saw a perfect bat silhouette, stretched out like the quintessential black bat stickers they sell on Halloween. My mind skipped a beat – that’s not normally how a bat in a net looks. Suddenly I made sense of it – a small bat had tried to fly through a hole in the net. But the tiny claws on its wings had hooked onto the feathering edges of the hole, tenuously trapping the creature in place. One flap of his wings, I knew, and he’d be gone. I held my breath, crept up as quickly as I could, and grabbed it gently. The net slipped right off his wings before I’d even touched the threads. With its large ears and mousy face, the bat was instantly recognizable. A Botswanan long-eared bat (Laephotis botswanae). It was the first record for the park, and only the second L. botswanae ever recorded in the entire country of Mozambique. An exceedingly rare find, all because of a hole in the net and an overambitious bat.

His mistake, or mine? I’m not sure, but as a scientist, I’ve come to be grateful for the occasional error.

Laeophotis botswanae, the Botswanan long-eared bat.

What to Enter: Photo Competitions for Nature Photographers

One of the best ways to get recognition for your photography is through photo competitions. Unfortunately, a lot of scammers have figured that out, and there are a number of less-than-legitimate competitions out there who will happily pocket your hefty entrance fee in exchange for little or nothing. I’ve spent the last six months or so researching and entering photo contests, and I’m sharing my findings here to help my fellow photographers navigate the vast bog of internet photo contests.

Read More

The Accidental Sloth

“Jen, hurry, there’s something on the bridge!”

I abandoned the lizard I was watching and scuttled to where Piotr Naskrecki was standing. I shone my spotlight on the suspension bridge that spans the Rio Sarapiqui at La Selva Biological Station, in central Costa Rica. It was my first time in the Neotropics and I was eager to see everything. Costa Rica is something of a pilgrimage for tropical biologists, boasting 3-5% of the world’s biodiversity in an area that is only .0003% of the world’s land. In fact, it may have the highest biodiversity of any country.

Two eyes shone back at me like gold coins. The thing was moving, fast, up the twisted steel cables that hold the bridge. I tried to move both quickly and quietly, a difficult thing with clunky rubber boots on my feet, 30 pounds of camera gear on my back, and anticipation clouding my judgment. So I squeaked, clanked, and panted toward it.

Somehow, the thing detected us and started moving faster, the two gold coins bouncing up the cable.

It sprang within range of my beam. “It’s a kinkajou!”

The kinkajou (Potos flavus) is related to raccoons but looks more like a cross between a monkey and a teddy bear. In addition to having one of the coolest names in the animal kingdom, kinkajous are important pollinators and seed dispersers with 5-inch tongues that they use to harvest fruits and nectar.

“I have to get a video.” Piotr said with conviction. He heaved his elephantine camera bag onto the bridge and started rummaging through it as I watched the kinkajou scurry up the cable. As soon as it was above Piotr, it paused, turned, and lifted its tail in his direction. Was that a mischievous gleam in its eye or just the reflection of my spotlight? “Uh oh,” I thought, in the split second before it happened.

A huge diarrheal turd landed splat on the bridge, inches from Piotr’s camera bag. The kinkajou then released the longest stream of urine I’ve ever seen, stretching from its perch 10 meters above us to the bridge, where it rained, and rained, and rained until it trickled over to Piotr’s bag.

Piotr's video of the kinkajou. Worth being shat on for...?

“I guess it doesn’t like you.” I stepped over the urine puddle to follow the animal along the cable. Its arms swung with a boxer’s hook at every step, its body sleek and undulating. As it was nearing the bridge’s tower, it passed inches below a big brown termite nest.

Or was it a termite nest? It looked awfully hairy.

“SLOTH!” I nearly yelled, giddy with excitement. Even 10m up, its algae-covered fur shone green. I couldn’t believe it – these two animals that had previously existed for me only in books were practically spooning. 

I reluctantly let the kinkajou escape into the darkness and instead watched the sloth. Big surprise, turns out they don’t do much. In Spanish, sloths are called “oso perezoso”, or the lazy bear. In English, of course, they’re named after one of the seven deadly sins.

My first sloth, doing absolutely nothing. Photo by Piotr Naskrecki.

But they have a good excuse for their perceived laziness – their diet of leaves (for three-toed sloths; two-toed sloths also eat  fruits and flowers) is incredibly poor in nutritional content and difficult to digest. Each meal spends four whole weeks in a sloth’s multi-chambered digestive system, broken down with the help of symbiotic bacteria, before it’s voided. And that process, too, is a mission – sloths climb down from the trees once a week to release a one-kilogram (two pound) poop along with an entire liter of urine. A sloth can lose up to two-thirds of its body weight in a single trip to the bathroom (think about it). And like any good outdoorsman, they dig a hole and cover it when they’re done. Since half of all sloth deaths are estimated to occur during their weekly bathroom break, there must be a good reason for shitting among the jaguars. But scientists still don’t know what that reason is.

A three-toed sloth during a bathroom break on the forest floor. Photo by Piotr Naskrecki.

As a consequence of their slow digestion and poor diet, they live nearly their whole lives in energy-conservation mode. They have slow metabolism and low body temperature. They move slowly, and only if they have to, and take frequent naps even during their active period (daytime for three-toed, nighttime for two-toed). That’s strategy, not laziness. If a sloth is threatened it can swipe with its two or three sickle-claws nearly as fast as a cat.

 “Two-toed” and “three-toed” is a misnomer. The Spanish name, “dos dedos” and “tres dedos” – two- and three-fingered – is more accurate. These sloths all have the same number of toes (three) and it’s only the number of digits on their hands that changes. My first sloth was a two-toed (Choloepus hoffmanni, one of two two-toed species in the neotropics), and pretty adorable even at 10 meters in the dark.

It wasn’t quite as adorable, though, as this baby two-toed sloth I saw at the sloth rescue two days later. Sloths throughout the Neotropics are threatened by habitat destruction and other human interference. Power lines, for example, pose a huge problem for sloths – if they grab a live wire in one of the ubiquitous jungle downpours, they may end up with a fried limb or worse. And their less-than-speedy pace often puts them at the unlucky end of speeding cars.

A baby orphan two-toed sloth hangs onto its keeper's shoulder.

Fortunately, Costa Rica is doing a spectacular job of conserving its natural heritage. About 25% of its land is protected, and almost 50% of its land is still forested. In addition, a number of animal rescues and sanctuaries operate throughout the country. In Costa Rica, at least for now, sloths can keep leisurely munching leaves in the canopy.

The Hippos of Lake Urema

Note: This blog was originally published by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation on January 30th, 2015.

I scanned the shadows in the gray pre-dawn light, my senses on high alert as I listened for the crackling of twigs beneath a heavy hoof or the throaty sawing huff of a leopard on a sunrise prowl. After a few minutes, feeling sure the coast was clear, I jumped out of the truck. Holding my breath, I paced the 50 meters to collect the camera trap at the edge of the river, my field assistant watching my back. This was the hour when I felt most like the poorly-adapted, unarmed, weak and naked ape that I was: I squinted in the dim light, knowing that even elephants can creep silently through the brush, knowing that I would never outrun a livid buffalo whose morning sip I’d disturbed. Knowing that if I jumped into the river to escape, a croc could be waiting open-mouthed for a breakfast snack.

I climbed back into the truck, camera in hand and pulse finally slowing, and looked at my assistant. “Gets me every time,” I said, and he laughed at the wild look in my eyes. The clutch was smooth under my shaking leg, but as I went to start the vehicle, a shadow crept into the corner of my eye. It was a huge hippo, the animal reputed to kill more humans in Africa than any other, ambling back to his daytime refuge in the river after a night of grazing on the upland grass. Never bothering to glance at us, he passed from monochrome to purple-gray and back as he lumbered through our headlights, inches from the bumper of the car. His dinner-plate feet slopping through my muddy tracks down to the river. He scraped the post that the camera trap had been attached to only minutes before, and splashed into the water.

Hippos are among Africa’s most dangerous animals, but their intimidating size makes them critical ecosystem engineers.

Hippos are among Africa’s most dangerous animals, but their intimidating size makes them critical ecosystem engineers.

After I mumbled a stream of expletives, my assistant conspicuously silent beside me, I started the vehicle and we went on with our day.

During that time I was working on a hippo ecology project in Kenya, where I first learned about the crucial role that hippos play as ecosystem engineers. Hippos can eat up to 40kg of grass every night, and they leave behind swaths of closely cropped and highly productive grass that’s ideal for smaller herbivores. At around 3 tons, the third-heaviest land mammal in the world after elephants and rhinos, they have a lot of weight to throw around. The paths that they use to go to and from their pastures every night can erode into channels that funnel water and provide breeding habitat for amphibians and fish.

It was this phenomenon that I had hoped to study in Gorongosa. Hippo numbers had plummeted during the war, and there were now only 250 in a lake that had once supported 3500. It was likely that their loss had profound effects on the ecosystem. But once I got to Gorongosa in 2014, I realized that the hippos weren’t just rare – they were so scarce that I only saw a handful during several days of concerted searching. In addition, the park boat was the only one for many kilometers around. If I got stuck or the engine failed, I’d be croc fodder.

Channels and trails criss-cross their way across the floodplain to Lake Urema.

Channels and trails criss-cross their way across the floodplain to Lake Urema.

But, as often happens in science, I soon understood that hippos were only one piece of a complex puzzle, one species in an assemblage of large and ecologically important mammals that had been heavily hit by poaching during the war. And I recognized that perhaps the most interesting species is the one that defied this downward trend: the waterbuck. Since the end of the war, waterbuck have exploded like confetti out of a cannon, and the floodplain is crawling with them. In fact, they now number about 34,000 individuals, almost ten times more abundant than they were before the war.  Why are they doing so well? And, what are the ecological knock-on effects of this sudden dominance by an herbivore that’s much smaller than the once-dominant buffalo and hippo? Like foxes and wolves, smaller herbivores can play a very different role than larger ones.

A few days ago, I came across a passage in a half-century-old study that seems to bring this story full circle: “…we find that a significant inverse correlation exists between waterbuck density and hippopotamus density…” he says as he describes the result of a 1950’s effort to restore grasslands in a Ugandan park by wiping out its hippopotamus population. As the hippo numbers dwindled, the waterbuck population spiked. It was a reminder to me that the threads of an ecosystem run in ways that we don’t always imagine. I can’t wait to follow this one and see where it leads.


Photographing Bats in Flight

Note: This blog was originally published by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation on February 2nd, 2015.

“Most people just see bats as shadows in the dark.” Climbing into abandoned wells and creeping around at night isn’t for the faint of heart, but for scientists who study bats, it’s all in a day’s work. In this episode of "Gorongosa Field Notes," mammalogist Jen Guyton teams up with renowned wildlife photographer Dr. Piotr Naskrecki to capture Gorongosa National Park’s bats in flight. Learn more at http://eowilsonfoundation.org/e-o-wilson-laboratory-at-gorongosa/


“Come on, little dude. Fly for me.” I gently prodded the outside of the fabric box that held the dark brown fuzzy lump. It was an Angolan free-tailed bat, Mops condylura, and it wasn’t cooperating.

I was working with Piotr Naskrecki, the director of Gorongosa’s E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory and a renowned nature photographer, to create a photographic catalog of all of the bat species of Gorongosa. Piotr had put together a rather complex setup, involving a white fabric box with holes cut in two opposite sides. A laser points through each hole, and where the two lasers meet is the sweet spot: the bats have to barrel through it to trigger the camera. When a flying bat breaks the laser beam, six flashes burst aflame as the camera, mounted on a tripod a few feet away, snaps the picture.

We’d been working patiently with this free-tailed bat for over half an hour without a single trigger. “Maybe it’s us. Let’s leave and let it be for a few minutes,” Piotr suggested. We left the tent and returned ten minutes later, and I peered into the box hopefully.

A photograph of the free-tailed bat Chaerophon ansorgei, a smaller relative of Mops condylura, which we convinced to fly inside a 10m-cubed tent. We used a lot more space than we had been working with originally, but we never got the Mops to fly! This photo shows this family’s characteristically long, narrow wings. Photograph by Piotr Naskrecki.

A photograph of the free-tailed bat Chaerophon ansorgei, a smaller relative of Mops condylura, which we convinced to fly inside a 10m-cubed tent. We used a lot more space than we had been working with originally, but we never got the Mops to fly! This photo shows this family’s characteristically long, narrow wings. Photograph by Piotr Naskrecki.

The bat hadn’t budged an inch. It looked up from its perch in the top corner of the white box and bared its enormous fangs at me. Piotr called these particular bats “flying vipers”, and I’d felt those pearly white sickles tear through my fingers more than once.

“I don’t know why it won’t fly…” I mumbled, pages fluttering as I scanned for Mops in my copy of Bats of Southern and Central Africa. I was fairly new to the world of bats, having studied larger mammals throughout most of my career thus far, and I hadn’t yet learned to read their behavior.

“Let’s see… it says here they’re ‘open-air foragers’.” I remembered standing beneath the roost behind the camp restaurant at dusk, how hundreds of free-tailed bats poured out of the roof and tumbled nearly to the ground before they took flight and hurled into the night, zipping like tiny fighter jets past my face.

Piotr Naskrecki and I preparing to photograph bats in flight at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park.

Piotr Naskrecki and I preparing to photograph bats in flight at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park.

Our other bats had done fine – but they were leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideridae) and horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae), both “clutter foragers”, I read, which specialize in flying slowly and stealthily through the jumbled forest vegetation. Their short wings give them incredible maneuverability as they hunt their unsuspecting prey from behind a curtain of leaves. They were the tigers of the bat world, and now we were dealing with cheetahs. Free-tailed bats, it turns out, have long, narrow wings, specialized for flying high and fast. We would never get one to take off in a 1m3 box – it was a physical impossibility. I gently removed the bat from the box, stepped outside, and held it high. It showed me a mouth full of razor blades one last time and took off, its chest hairs almost brushing the ground as it dipped earthward and then zipped off into the darkness.

That experience gave me an intuitive understanding of the strategies and adaptations of various bat species. I now have a vibrant image in my mind of a clutter-foraging horseshoe bat taking off from the floor of the box, flying in a tight circle, and sticking a perfect landing with its feet clinging to the box’s upper seam. In sharp contrast is the free-tailed bat, sitting, grinning, waiting for space.

A photograph of Rhinolophus landeri, a clutter-foraging horseshoe bat. Its wings are short and broad, and can be drawn in to avoid obstacles, as shown here by the wrinkling in the wing membrane. Photograph by Piotr Naskrecki.

A photograph of Rhinolophus landeri, a clutter-foraging horseshoe bat. Its wings are short and broad, and can be drawn in to avoid obstacles, as shown here by the wrinkling in the wing membrane. Photograph by Piotr Naskrecki.

You can learn a lot about an animal through the patience and close observation to detail it requires to turn them into art. In addition to these photos, I recently started painting the animals I study. As I painted the digits of an epauletted fruit bat in fine detail, I thought to myself, “How interesting – its thumb extends far beyond the membrane and has a sharp claw, unlike the little insectivorous bats.” Some reading then told me that these thumbs are used for climbing and clinging to fruit, and I’ll never forget their structure. Art, like science, forces us to slow down and absorb every rich detail. For me, there’s no more vivid a way to see the world.

Rescuing a Dragon

Note: This blog was originally published on The Smaller Majority on October 14, 2014 under the title "Mozambique Diary: Rescuing a Dragon".

In my lap was a specter, one of the most elusive animals in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d been waiting years to see it, and now it was weighing abrasively on my thighs like a sack of bricks stuffed into a giant pinecone. It wiggled and unfurled its roly-poly body just enough to reveal an eye like sticky caviar, its tongue whizzing in and out and reinforcing the illusion that this scaly orb was a dragon come to life.

Guyton_pangolinpainting.jpg

But it was a warm-blooded, placental mammal, confirmed by the tiny body double that was furled in her spiny grasp, suckling at the teats exposed on her underbelly. The mother and her pup were ground pangolins (Smutsia temminckii), one of eight species belonging to the mammalian order Pholidota, found only in Africa and southeast Asia. Though often called scaly anteaters, pangolins are unrelated to the Vermilingua, the suborder containing true anteaters. Actually, pangolins aren’t closely related to much of anything; these animals are unique, clinging to a long, isolated branch on the tree of life.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, the author holds a ground pangolin and her baby boy on their way back to Gorongosa National Park to be released into their habitat.

Safe at last – rescued from poachers, the author holds a ground pangolin and her baby boy on their way back to Gorongosa National Park to be released into their habitat.

We were in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, and someone had told us about her. There was a man in a village across the river, the whispers went, selling her for the low price of 22,000 meticais (about $700 USD). Like rhinos, pangolins have fallen victim to a deeply-held misconception that their keratinous scales hold medicinal magic: that they can cure skin disease, reduce swelling, or even conquer cancer. I’ll tell you now: save yourself the money and the risk of jail time, and just chew on your nails – they are chemically and physiologically the same.

One day and a sting operation later, the pangolin was in my lap. Park rangers, working with the local police, arrested the poachers and rescued the animals. We were driving them out into the core of the park, where we’d release them, safely distant from grasping human hands. Though the pinecone plates of a pangolin’s back can and do stand up to being chewed on by lions, these animals are no match for a human that’s interested enough to simply pick one up and carry it off. Their only other real defense is their smell, an indescribable odor that originates from a noxious-smelling acid secreted from glands below the tail.

I ran my hands along the pangolin’s scales. They were grooved and brittle-chipped, crooked and mud-splattered like fingernails that had seen many years of working with the land. In Asia, the scales of confiscated pangolins bear the circular scars of punches used for medicine. Even the artful hand of evolution, which had crafted this unique armor from a plush pelt, couldn’t save them.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic velociraptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

Bipedal and armed with massive claws, a Ground pangolin could easily be confused with a carnivorous Jurassic velociraptor. But these gentle mammals feed exclusively on termites and ants, and their only defense is a thick armor of keratinous scales.

As she unrolled herself from her fortress, a second head surfaced, tiny and pale. It was her male pup, the only one that will be born until he reaches sexual maturity in two years. He was born in captivity, a side effect of stress, and an unrealized bonus prize for the poacher. His scales were half-baked, pliable, and the dark shriveled stump of an umbilical cord poked from his round belly. He moved in the shivering stutters of an infant still unsure about the world.

As the pup crawled up my arm, the mother thrust out a hooked hand to right herself. Her claws, the length of my own fingers, gripped my jacket like rusty nails and tore a gaping hole in the material as they bore into my side. I jumped, and she rolled back into a ball, her pup safely inside. These formidable sickle-claws are used to tear open termite mounds and ant nests, shredding the hard earth in search of scrambling adults and doughy larvae. The pangolin laps them up with its sticky-salivating tongue, longer than its own body and the longest relative to body size of all known mammals. Because pangolins lack teeth entirely, keratinous folds line their stomachs with inverse armor, grinding the insects to bits with the help of ingested pebbles.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

Having spent a month in captivity, the pangolin, her baby tenuously clinging to her back, takes the first steps as a free animal.

We finally reached an appropriate site: far from the park’s perilous edges, the forest bulged above a tapestry of termite mounds. We set her gently on the ground, and waited.

Pup clinging to her back, she stood and sniffed the air, taking a few moments to orient herself to her new and safer home before choosing a bearing. Her scales clack-clacking, she ambled away on her hind feet like a drunken Velociraptor, tail out and claws curled against her chest. It’s hard to walk on all fours when you’ve got scythes for hands.

In Chinese mythology, pangolins are wayfarers. It’s said that they travel the world by digging through the core of it, tying the earth together with a vast underground labyrinth. In Cantonese, they’re called chun-shua-cap, “the animal that bores through the mountain.” I’d like to think she’s safely reached the Alps by now.

Text and artwork ©Jen Guyton 2014. Photos ©Piotr Naskrecki 2014.

If you would like to learn more about pangolins, and the threats they face from the illegal wildlife trade, read this recent expository piece on the CNN website.

Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.

Safe under his mother’s armor, a young pangolin will stay with her until his own scales are large and strong enough to provide protection from predators.


African Bats: Conservation in the Time of Ebola

Note: This blog was originally published on The Smaller Majority on November 17, 2014.

Banana bats (Neoromicia nana) are tiny, insectivorous bats. Their name comes from the preferred roosting habitat of this species – furled leaves of banana plants.

Banana bats (Neoromicia nana) are tiny, insectivorous bats. Their name comes from the preferred roosting habitat of this species – furled leaves of banana plants.

The last fragile wing finally came free from the threads of my mist net. I sank into the sand on the riverbank, took a deep breath, and tugged off my yellow deerskin gloves. Eight cotton bags wiggled as they hung from the line that tethered my mist net to a tree. We’d gotten a swell of banana bats (Neoromicia nana), tiny creatures, no heavier than a large grasshopper, that are thought to roost in the furled leaves of banana plants. They had come in low over the river like a pack of tiny, flittering wolves, hunting the gnats and mosquitoes that hovered in a veil over the water. I’d had to work fast, because the longer the bats stayed in the mist net, the more tangled they became. Some even chewed their way through the nylon thread, escaping in a flurry of teeth and leaving behind a yawning hole for me to mend, its edges fringed with fragrant urine. Now, I just had to wait for my subjects to leave me a few fecal pellets in the cotton bags so that I could analyze their diet.

I looked with relief at Kaitlyn, my assistant for the day, as we took swigs of our beers. I watched the net billow and catch the moonlight, shining silvery-black like a benighted spider web, and listened to the sound of elephants crashing their way through the dense riverine vegetation in the distance.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kaitlyn startle and look down. “I think something just peed on me,” she said, sounding perplexed. I shone my headlamp above her and was greeted by the glittering eyes and bulging cheeks of a large bat, hanging from the branch of the tree above us and happily chomping away on a piece of fruit. From the white patches below its ears and its fawn-colored fur I recognized it as an Epauletted fruit bat, a member of the genus Epomophorus.

A painting of the female Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) that peed on Kaitlyn.

A painting of the female Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) that peed on Kaitlyn.

I ran to grab my hand net, a long mesh bag on a circular frame with a handle. The bat was a dozen feet above us, and I didn’t have the handle extension sections, so I quickly duct taped the net to a mist net pole. I raised the net slowly, very slowly, sure that the bat would see me coming and take flight. But it continued to munch merrily, and it disappeared into the net with little more than a metallic peep! of protest. As I collected a fecal sample from it, Kaitlyn cleaned the urine from her clothes.

***

Little collared fruit bat (Myonycteris torquata) from Ghana, a species implicated in harboring the Ebola virus.

Little collared fruit bat (Myonycteris torquata) from Ghana, a species implicated in harboring the Ebola virus.

Stories like these have gotten me into trouble lately. “I study bat communities in Africa,” I’ll say, only to be greeted by wide eyes and mouth poised to speak the word that’s on everyone’s mind: Ebola. 

Luckily, I work on the other side of the continent, thousands of miles from where Ebola has now taken almost 5,000 lives. My field site in Mozambique, on the southeastern coast of Africa, is safe from bat-borne diseases, as far as we know. But it’s no secret that bats have been implicated frequently in emerging zoonotic diseases – diseases of animal origin – that are now cropping up among humans: rabies in the Americas, Marburg virus in Africa, Hendra virus in Australia, and Nipah and SARS viruses in Southeast Asia are all harbored by bats.

The recent Ebola outbreak, too, has tenuous ties to our fluttering friends: scientists have found its antibodies in several species of West and Central African fruit bats. We can’t be sure, though, that they are “reservoir” species – organisms that consistently maintain a virus in their bodies without showing signs of illness. This would allow the bats to harbor Ebola, giving it the opportunity to spill over into humans. But, since we haven’t isolated live virus particles from the bats, all we know is that at some point in their lives, they were exposed to the virus that left its signature on their immune system.

So far, there’s no record of a bat transmitting Ebola to humans. Humans can get it from other humans, and we have solid evidence that people have become infected through ape carcasses, scavenged and eaten. People in parts of Africa eat bats too, but whether humans can catch the bug directly from bats is still a mystery. Some bat-borne diseases need to pass through what’s called an “intermediate” host – another species that amplifies the virus, allowing it to multiply and become more virulent – before humans can catch it. That is true of Hendra virus, which is found in Australian flying foxes. Contact with the bats poses little known threat to humans, but four people have died after interacting with sick horses. The horses, it seems, fed on fruits from trees where bats roosted.

A colony of Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) from Nzerekore, Guinea, where many people have recently died of Ebola. This species has also been suspected of being the virus’ carrier but so far no live Ebola virus has been isolated from any species of African bats.

A colony of Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) from Nzerekore, Guinea, where many people have recently died of Ebola. This species has also been suspected of being the virus’ carrier but so far no live Ebola virus has been isolated from any species of African bats.

All of this adds to bats’ undeservedly bad reputation. Their mystical association with vampires, nocturnal habits, their seemingly erratic flight pattern, a slew of spooky superstitions, and now a misperception that bats are unusually disease-ridden have earned them a less-than-exalted place in the human consciousness. In some cases, this negative image arouses persecution. In 2007, hysteria stemming from a Marburg virus outbreak in Uganda led to mass extermination of Egyptian fruit bats, leaving heaps of them piled on the floor of the forest. This wasn’t an unprecedented reaction – people have been slaughtering vampire bats in Peru since the 1960s in an effort to control rabies, and a few years ago, the four human deaths from Hendra virus in Australia led to widespread culling of flying foxes. 

Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi) from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

But does reducing bat populations actually help reduce the risk of bat-borne diseases jumping to humans? Surprisingly, the answer is: probably not. In fact, there’s evidence that it could make things worse. In Uganda, the fruit bat extermination led to a much larger outbreak of Marburg, which is closely related to Ebola, among humans. As it turned out, fruit bats recolonized the caves from which they’d been exterminated, and the new population had a much higher prevalence of Marburg infection than the exterminated one. We’re seeing a similar effect in the Peruvian vampire bats – rabies prevalence is higher in populations that are subjected to culling by a poison called “vampiricide”, which preferentially kills adult bats. That’s probably because killing adults removes individuals that have already been exposed to the disease, making them immune. That allows “susceptible” juveniles, with no immunity, to proliferate, and the infection spreads like wildfire.

Fruit bats like bananas – even when they are being measured, photographed, or otherwise molested by a researcher.

Fruit bats like bananas – even when they are being measured, photographed, or otherwise molested by a researcher.

It’s not clear whether bats really are different from other animals that could potentially carry diseases, or whether we’re just paying more attention to them now; there’s currently a debate raging among scientists about whether bats are special as disease reservoirs. Some say yes. This may be because many bat species are very social, which would allow pathogens to spread easily. Or, it could be that bats have a long evolutionary relationship with some virus families. Some scientists hypothesize that it’s linked to bat physiology: an unusual immune system, or the remarkably high body temperatures that bats experience during flight, could play a role in their ability to survive infections and, in the end, become reservoirs of pathogens.

Others argue that the numbers just don’t add up and that bats aren’t any more disease-ridden than other mammal groups. Given that bat research is on the increase it could be the simple result of a twisted treasure hunt: the harder we look, the more we find.

What we do know is that bats are special in a lot of other ways, and they deserve a boost in popular image. They’re the only mammals that have evolved true flight. They’re also one of the few groups, along with some whales, shrews, and birds that use echolocation – the ability to “see” a landscape using reflected sound waves. The combination of flight and echolocation allows them to fill a special role as nocturnal predators of aerial insects, with the potential to suppress insects like mosquitoes or some agricultural pests that aren’t active during the day. That does us humans an important service, and scientists have estimated that bats save U.S. agriculture $53 billion dollars in pest control every year. The high diversity of bats – they’re the second most diverse mammal group after rodents – allows them to fill a number of other important roles in ecosystems, such as dispersing the seeds of rainforest trees or pollinating flowers, including the agave used to make tequila.

We don’t yet know as much about bats and their diseases as we should, but the little evidence we do have suggests that killing bats will actually worsen the problem. It also suggests that the same things that are driving some bats toward extinction are also driving spillover events. Deforestation, for example, forces bats to find new homes in cities and increases the probability of their contact with humans. And eating bats gives their pathogens even easier access to people. We can reduce those risks if we protect bat habitats, halt culling efforts, and convince people to stop hunting and eating bats. None of these are trivial endeavors, but we need to try. In the time of Ebola, bat conservation is more important than ever.

Peters’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus crypturus) from Gorongosa National Park.

Peters’s epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus crypturus) from Gorongosa National Park.

Text and artwork ©Jen Guyton 2014. Photos ©Piotr Naskrecki 2014.

If you would like to learn more about bats and Ebola, read my recent article [PDF] in the journal Therya.