Ísla Partida has a thriving bat population. Uniquely adapted, these bats catch and eat fish with long clawed feet and carry their catch in a pouch between their legs and wings. An ocean upwelling nearby provides constant supply of the little fish these bats feed on. The bats only have one pup at a time in late spring, might have two a year, and live only ten years, under different circumstances other bats can live forty years. Luckily, rats haven’t been introduced to the island, so that bats can multiply here freely.
We saw a camp on the island, when we arrived at Ísla Partida. We went ashore curious about the camp of which we had seen only a flag and remnants the year before. We found out, that it was a research camp, where every June teams of scientists stay on the island for one month at a time to study the local bats and a small wren. They are Mexican and also few American biologists sponsored by Mexican universities, governmental agencies and grants, the American Edward won a National Geographic Young Explorer and grant money for his research.
The young scientist Ula collects data for her PhD thesis and studies the digestive system of the bats. Andrea and Edward study the bats nightly flights, their feeding cries and voice patterns. They catch bats in the early morning, when the bats are resting after their night flight of up to 100 miles. The bats live in the crevices of rocks, are easy to catch and the researchers keep them in small cotton bags for not longer than twenty-four hours. During this time, they feed them, measure their poo and outfit them with tiny GPS chips they glue with putty on their napes.
Edward and Andrea found out so far, that the bats live as individuals and only sometimes fly at night with their daytime nesting neighbors. These bats give out a hunting cry, which the others can hear to about 100 meters, but they don’t hunt in groups. It’s more like fishermen calling each other on VHF about the location of big pods of fish.
The bat scientists are working double shifts, busily catching and releasing bats, compiling data and recording sounds and GPS data at night. They sleep in tents, cook their meals on camping stoves and a generator charges their equipment and computers near their lab tent. For one month, they bathe in the sea and a spot on a beach around a corner functions as open-air outhouse. Fishermen are hired to take care of them, to bring supplies, water and food, help with the research, drive the pangas on research missions, and sometimes cook a meal of fresh fish for everyone. It is impressive to witness the scientists’ passion and commitment to understanding the intricacies of animals and their environment. “We know so little about bats and how they communicate and about animals in general, because we relate them to our way of communicating. We didn’t know for a long time that sharks and bees communicate via electromagnetic fields, because we didn’t know what to look for.” explains Jorge, a young biology master student from Mexico City.
Living on an island in the sea changes them, all of the scientists here say. They experience the wind, sun and sea and the animals they are studying in complete immersion. They soak up their surroundings. They become uniquely one with nature. Jorge showed us a couple seals decaying on the beach; the skin dried to a jerky and the bones still intact in their former positions. They build shrines with the bones of dead animals as evidence of life for other visitors. They are passionate and dedicated and have a grueling work schedule. They want to understand these endangered bats, preserve their habitat and environment. They fell in love with these cup size animals and handle them with the utmost care. I was given the chance to caress one of the bats’ furry heads, while Ula held one for me; it felt like touching a shorthaired pet rabbit.
What an experience and how can it not change them forever. I remember traveling in the deserts of Egypt as a young adult, where my mom and I took baths with a group of tourists in a well at night, after first the women and then the men of the oasis village had taken theirs. Since then, I never again took water as a given, took very short showers, turned off the water while brushing my teeth. Like these scientists, it fostered in me a lifetime interest in essential resources and I worked for years within the sustainability and environmental movement.
Andrea and Jorge are working, in parallel to their studies, as educators for the International Society of Bat Preservation, are changing the minds of school children and are hoping to grow a new legion of bat lovers. May their and all scientist’s efforts change the world. One bat, one bird, one turtle at a time.