In retrospect, it amazes me how rapidly my transformation to bat lover occurred, once I was properly introduced. The relationship was less than a year old when I started making these solo forays into the night to commune with bats. A turning point in my career as a biologist, and the one that forever rid me of my prejudicial stance on bats, was my acceptance a year earlier into the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) course in Costa Rica, an eight-week total immersion in tropical biology for U.S.-based graduate students. From sunrise to past midnight, seven days a week, it was one intellectual stimulant after another, fueled by rice, beans, coffee, and rum. Luckily for me, among the many charismatic lecturers in the course was Frank Bonaccorso.

With his black curly hair, Fu Manchu mustache, and irreverent spirit, Frank was full-time bat biologist, part-time standup comedian. Currently the chief curator of mammals at the Museum of Natural History in New Guinea, he has championed the study of mammals in a country noted for its tree kangaroos, spiny anteaters, and, of course, extraordinary fruit bats. His unique approach of mixing Saturday Night Live style humor with field research made him the perfect guest instructor, and his love of bats was contagious. In three nights out with Frank at the La Selva field station in the Atlantic coastal low-lands, he transformed my rather ordinary fear of bats into a growing admiration for them and stimulated the mammal trapper in me with his strategic stringing of mist nets and the macho thrill of learning to remove the bats without being nipped (we let Frank handle the vampires).

My real change of heart must be attributed to the sheer delight of coming face to face with a cast of unforgettable creatures. We captured charming Honduran white bats with clown-like yellow ears and leaf noses that, within minutes, lay tamed in our hands, chewing contentedly on pieces of banana. I fed sugar water from an eyedropper to docile, long-tongued, nectar-feeding bats, the hummingbirds of the night. And then there were close encounters with the carnivores, such as the crafty fringe-lipped bats that tuned into the calls of amorous male frogs and snatched them midperformance. But to me the most elegant were the variety of fruit-eating bats, many with bold white stripes down their backs and on their faces.

Frank s discourses on the ecology of bats were delivered through formal lectures often spiced with humorous natural history anecdotes. He regaled us with descriptions of the marvelous New World bats we would meet if we followed in his footsteps, such as the industrious tent-making bats. The I. M. Pels of the bat world, these bats create their own shelters under a Heliconia leaf or banana frond by cutting the mid-rib veins and allowing the halves to collapse into a bivouac within which a family could roost safely out of sight. We might also befriend the bulldog bats that scoop fish out of the water like an eagle; the carnivorous false-vampire, the largest New World bat, which snatches birds and small mammals while they sleep on tree limbs; the delicate sac-winged bats, among the smallest species, weighing less than a nickel but with a social system identical to that of African lions --- the dominant male closely guarding his harem of breeding females from jealous competitors.

Now totally smitten by these nocturnal winged mammals, I decided early on to focus on the fruit-eaters, just as Frank had. I had already been a closet botanist and suffer the weird affliction of needing to know the Latin names of the plants around me wherever I travel. If I elected to study bats that drank nectar from night-blooming flowers or plucked ripe fruits from the rain forest, I would be able to develop my credentials as a mammalogist but still have an excuse to learn as much as I wanted about tropical botany. I had found the perfect marriage of natural history in what biologists call plant-animal interactions.

After the first ten days at La Selva, our group headed off to the tropical dry forests along Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Frank had to leave, but before he departed, I was able to discuss my rapidly growing interest in fruit-eating bats and explore some ideas for a thesis topic. He generously left me all of his mist nets, his hand-sewn bat bags for briefly holding captured bats until release, his Pesola scales for weighing bats, and other paraphernalia of bat catching. He also imparted a final bit of clarification of my neophyte status. Mimicking the voice of the martial arts master from the television show Kung Fu, Frank addressed me thus: "Grasshoppa, when you catch wrinkle-faced bat, only then can you call yourself Bat Man." The wrinkle-faced bat, the most bizarre looking of all species of the order Chiroptera, is rarely encountered, despite its wide range, from southern Mexico to Venezuela. Its face has been described as the most grotesque visage in nature, an unflattering series of fissures and creases in a head too large for its small body. I couldn't wait to become one of the lucky few scientists in the world who had captured the Quasimodo of fruit bats.

--- From Tigerland
Eric Dinerstein
©2005 Island/Shearwater

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