The Cutest Bat in the World by Hernani Fernandes Magalhaes de Oliveira

You can call me Batman if you want as I have worked with bats for the last 12 years of my life. As a Brazilian, I am used to people always telling me how much they do not like bats, how ugly they are, and how many diseases and death they can bring to people. Although bats provide many important ecosystem services, such as seed dispersers, pollination of flowers from many different plant species, and controlling pests that damage crops, saving billions of dollars in crop damage every year, the image that has been created around bats along time make it very hard to drive people to any other conclusions apart from the one that they are really bad animals. Fortunately, there are some bat species that are really cute and help to break the image that people have about them being vampire blood suckers.

Costa Rica is home to a high bat diversity and one of the cutest bat faces on Earth. It is called the Honduran white bat (Ectophylla alba). It has an extremely specialised diet consisting of only two plant species, and an interesting ecology as it roosts under modified leaves in groups containing males and females. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see an individual. Not only because of its restricted distribution and rarity, but also due to its population decline.

I went to Costa Rica to do the fieldwork of my PhD in 2015. I was lucky to end up not only in one of the sites where the species is known to occur, but also in a biological station where most of the work with this species is done. However, this does not mean that it is an easy species to spot. Although I was going to spend three months living in the station to capture bats, I was afraid that I might not be able to see it. As soon as I arrived, I started talking with the guides and looking for roosts of the species everywhere in the park, but I was not having any luck. After some weeks, I was starting to feel hopeless about seeing an Ectophylla. I was not catching it in the mist nets nor being able to find any roosts. However, my luck was about to change dramatically.

One night when I was leaving my room in the park to have dinner, I noticed a strange activity right in front of it. It was dusk and I noticed many animals flying directly to a tree, quickly landing and then taking off again. I hadn’t noticed before, but that tree was actually a Ficus colubrinae, one of the two plant species on the diet of Ectophylla alba, and it had just started to produce mature fruits.

To my surprise, I realized that there were dozens of Ectophyllas flying around the tree and consuming the figs. The activity happened during the whole night when I was able to watch closely their behaviour, take some good photos and even make videos. I could not believe how lucky I was! These behaviour is incredibly rare to witness as Ficus colubrinae only produce mature fruits during fews days of the year, and that is exactly when the Ectophyllas come to feed. I went to bed very happy and fulfilled as a biologist that night. The pictures and videos that I have made helped not only to bring awareness about the conservation and behaviour of this species in particular, but also to help call the attention about the importance of bats as seed dispersers, the threats that they are facing and that not all bats are ugly vampire blood sucking creatures.

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