Bats are the only mammals that can fly. They possess skin so elastic that when wings close, the membrane doesn't fold but instead contracts like a sheet of rubber. Their importance to the ecosystem is unparalleled; they eat enormous quantities of insects, they pollinate many plant species, and they help regenerate the forest by dispersing seeds. There are about 950 species of bats worldwide, and in the tropical rainforests of Panama there are more species of bats than there are of all other mammal species combined.
To most of us, bats are secretive creatures of the night. Shrouded in mystery -perceived more by our dark imaginings than rational thought- they remain in reality largely unknown and little understood.
Catching just a glimpse of a bat as it whips by in the dark sky is challenging enough, so imagine the difficulties which must be overcome by those who study these shy, winged mammals. How do the scientists make any headway at all? The answer lies with technology.
On Barro Colorado Island, at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a small, dedicated cadre of women is employing the latest tools the computer age has to offer. Join us as we look at the ingenious ways these scientists are asking their questions, and finding answers, about these dark creatures of the night, in…
"The Bat Women of Panama".
Dr. Elisabeth Kalko has been studying bats for nearly fifteen years. She captures the animals in mist nets, -old technology to be sure- and inspects, measures, and handles them. But then she moves into the high tech world and injects some of the bats with microchips. Others are shaved so that radio telemetry devices can be glued to their backs. As the tropical forest is a place where over 100 species of bats coexist, Kalko is building up a picture of just how that coexistence works.
Elisabeth's doctoral student Dina Dechman huddles under the rainforest canopy in the green glow of a Sony video monitor, watching a species of bat which likes to roost inside termite nests. Dina's camera has a specialized infrared head which allows her to see all of the social interactions going on inside the nest without bothering the animals or influencing their behavior. What's the relationship between the mammals and insects all about? This we'll discover with Dina, as she completes her Ph.D. fieldwork over the course of the next year.
Sabine Spehn prepares for a night of work in the flight cage. With her are two insectivorous bats of different species, and two closed boxes; one containing dragonflies, the other katydids. Her study looks at sensory ecology, and predation: How do bats detect their prey? If the prey is not nocturnal, and consequently resting at night when the bats are hunting, how is it found? Sabine offers the insects to the bats in a variety of ways, and she documents the various responses with two video cameras.