Ideas. Stories. Community.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

16 years of Bat-a-thon: Researchers met in Belize for various research on bats

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's something really special that happens every spring in northern Belize in a spot that was once a Mayan metropolis. Dozens of researchers from around the world converge on a little eco lodge in a tropical forest. They gather there to study the stunning diversity of bats in the region. And that's because bats, scientists say, have a lot to teach us humans about our changing planet and even about ourselves. Science reporter Ari Daniel wanted to know more, so he headed to Belize recently for Bat-a-thon 2024.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: To get to the eco lodge, we climb into an open-air boat on a stretch of the new river.

About to push off here from the dock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE SPUTTERING)

DANIEL: I'm sitting with half a dozen bat scientists. They're wearing hats and sunglasses. The air is hot and soupy. We wind and twist along the water. We glide past a green heron, a handful of mangrove swallows. Jessica Montoya notices the sun is setting. She's a biology grad student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She leans over to tell me the moment is nearly upon us when we enter a kind of dark side.

JESSICA MONTOYA: During the day, it's bird time. You can see the birds all around. But then there's a point in sunset where it stops being bird time, and it starts being bat time. And that's when the bats all come out.

DANIEL: And that's almost now.

MONTOYA: And that's almost now (laughter).

DANIEL: Finally, we approach a dock, and a tall woman greets us as we climb out of the boat.

NANCY SIMMONS: I got to hug these people.

DANIEL: This is Nancy Simmons. She's a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

SIMMONS: There's nobody staying here except us now, so everybody here is a bat person.

DANIEL: And she's in charge of this get-together.

SIMMONS: It doesn't really have a formal name, but Bat-a-thon sort of sums it up.

You can just follow me.

DANIEL: It's the Bat-a-thon's 16th year, and it's grown from a small gathering, to this year, 80 researchers from 50 institutions and more than a dozen countries. Simmons says this gathering is intensely collaborative, and it's yielded nearly 90 academic papers over the years. It's also really fun.

SIMMONS: I love it. It's just - being in the field with the bats and the people in the forest. It's my favorite thing that I do.

It's so good to see you again.

DANIEL: To be a bat researcher, to devote your life to these nocturnal riddles, you have to hope that in the narrow windows when you're out in the field, the specific kinds of bats that you want to study will fly into a net. That's why here, every afternoon, for two weeks, there's a lot of anticipation in the air as the team fans out to trap bats in various locations. One afternoon, I join a group inside the nearby Lamanai Archaeological Reserve.

SIMMONS: I'm very excited.

DANIEL: We stop, paces away from an ancient lion temple. I'm standing near the high temple. It's this giant pyramid that just surges up out of the ground. A few turkey vultures are perched up at the top.

ALICIA ROISTACHER: And then also hook of a carabiner.

DANIEL: A grad student from the University of Oklahoma, Alicia Roistacher, is helping put up a net that's some 25 feet tall. It's aimed at catching high-flying bats that eat insects. Howler monkeys gather in the trees overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLER MONKEYS GROWLING)

ROISTACHER: Setting up nets while, like, the howler monkeys are just, like, screaming above you. And, like, there's Mayan temples right behind us. This is amazing.

DANIEL: The remaining daylight leaks out of the sky, and it's official. It's bat time. It's pitch black, so I put on a head lamp and go looking for some of the other researchers who've strung up nets closer to the ground at eye level. They've turned the area into an aerial obstacle course for the bats.

JASMIN CAMACHO: So they just zoom past here so quickly. Even when we're sitting around waiting for them to get into our nets, we just watch them flying all around us.

DANIEL: Jasmin Camacho is an evolutionary biologist at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. It doesn't take long for the net to do its job.

CAMACHO: Let's go check out what they got.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She got her head through, I think.

DANIEL: A little bat has entangled herself. She's a nectar feeder and might hold a secret to fighting diabetes. With her wings folded up, her body is no bigger than a hard-boiled egg. Camacho and the others extract her from the net carefully.

CAMACHO: Yeah. So you just kind of slowly...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Slowly go around.

CAMACHO: ...Get what you can. Yeah. And once you have the - most of the wing free, you can kind of - perfect. Hang on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: She's out.

DANIEL: Camacho then places the bat in a small cloth bag. The next catch is a mustache bat, an insect eater.

CAMACHO: Yeah, this is totally a pteronotus.

DANIEL: Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

CAMACHO: Look at those teeth - so handsome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, you are a cutie.

DANIEL: Camacho then lets me hold one of the nectar feeders.

CAMACHO: Just hold her.

DANIEL: She's so tiny, I barely feel her in my gloved hand.

Oh, she's so sweet.

The international research crew continues to untangle bat after bat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I have one female vampire bat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This one is a pregnant female.

DANIEL: Within a couple hours, the teams have pulled dozens of bats out of the air. Some are the color of dark chocolate, others fuzzy caramels. The animals wait in their cloth bags. Certain bats will be let loose in a tent to fly around so researchers can quantify their movements. Some will be studied for how their immune systems respond to viruses and infections.

CAMACHO: We get a lot of common species, but the more nets we set out, the more chances we have to catch something rare and special.

DANIEL: The night before, the team snagged one of those treasures, a small northern ghost bat.

CAMACHO: With white fur, transparent wings. Those are so rare to see. It was magical. Like, we were, like, almost crying looking at this beautiful animal because we were just so in disbelief that we actually had it.

DANIEL: Eventually, the bats are brought back to a makeshift lab at the lodge. The researchers are pleased with the haul, most of them relieved to have the animals they need to run their experiments all into the wee hours of the night. Then, before sunrise, I tag along with several of the researchers. They're about to release the bats back into the forest. Neil Duncan is with the American Museum of Natural History.

NEIL DUNCAN: They're released unharmed. So I just unfurl the bag a little bit. You see the bat. He sees freedom. And he's gone. Right?

DANIEL: Yeah.

DUNCAN: There you go. This is part of the joy that, you know, once you've captured these bats, and now you send them back.

DANIEL: One by one, the bats return to their batty lives.

DUNCAN: There he goes.

DANIEL: It's getting lighter and lighter in the forest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

DANIEL: And the soundtrack - it shifts. It's bird time again. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel, Indian Church, Belize. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.