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Bat man IDs some bats by smell alone

October 30, 2015

Bat man IDs some bats by smell alone

Much like the bats he studies, Stefan Brändel’s work week in Panama over the past two years has been nocturnal

Much like the bats he studies, Stefan Brändel’s work week in Panama over the past two years has been nocturnal. Ten to twelve times each month, he spent his time in the dark forests around Barro Colorado National Monument and the Agua Salud river valley in the Panama Canal watershed. By the light of his headlamp, he would net, sample, tag and release bats between sunset and sunrise—more than 60 to 80 individuals on a good night. He has collected tens of thousands of samples from at least 6,421 bats, including fecal matter, blood, and the tiny, parasitic flies that scurry through the animals’ fur. He even learned to identify bat species by smell.

“That was nice because some of these bats are rare, so even if I didn’t capture one, I could smell that it was there,” says Brändel, a doctoral student working under Marco Tschapka, professor at the University of Ulm and a research associate of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Rachel Page, Smithsonian staff scientist. Their work adds to an extensive body of research on Neotropical bat species in Panama, initiated by the late Elisabeth Kalko, STRI staff scientist and University of Ulm professor.

As part of a project funded by the German Research Foundation, Brändel shipped his immense trove of data to Germany, where an interdisciplinary team of scientists will analyze the samples for DNA and parasites, including microbes like viruses and bacteria.

The project’s samples come from bat species living in dense, continuous forests as well as bats that persist in isolated fragments like the little islands in Gatun Lake—the main channel of the Panama Canal—and the pockets of forest scattered through degraded pastureland. The team hopes to understand how habitat type influences the relationship triangle between bats and other small mammals, blood-sucking organisms like mosquitoes, and the microbes that inhabit their hosts’ blood.

With over 48 months of continuous data collection—including recaptures of previously tagged bats—researchers can study how seasonal changes or a bat’s age and reproductive status may influence the microbial communities in their blood. Ultimately, the study may shed light on how potentially infectious viral diseases might emerge and spread in disturbed habitats. But with over 120 species of bats in Panama and 74 species on BCI alone, for ecologists like Brändel and Tschapka, studying diversity is its own reward.

“We see in biodiversity the sum of evolution—the sum of nature trying to find ways to make a living,” says Tschapka. Brändel agrees, noting that while it is fascinating to consider how the relationships between host animals and viruses fluctuate over time, what is even more interesting is the new questions that will emerge.

“The good thing about diversity is that you never know everything. There’s always more to learn,” says Brändel. “The moment you start, there comes another story.”

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