In 1986, BCI Founder and President Merlin Tuttle presented a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in which he highlighted the importance of fruit-eating bats to the dispersal of tropical seeds, including cashews. He captured our attention because, at that time, we were preparing a monograph of Anacardium, the genus to which cashews belong. We were so inspired by Tuttle's explanation of the importance of bats that we invited him and former BCI Science Director Paul Robertson to join us on an expedition to central French Guiana in 1987.
Since 1976, we have been working on a plant inventory of central French Guiana as part of a New York Botanical Garden collaborative project with the Institut de Recherche pour le Devéloppement in Cayenne. The goals of our “Fungal and Plant Diversity of Central French Guiana” project are threefold: to document the plants of central French Guiana, to understand relationships between plants and animals, and to apply what we learn to help conserve one of the last large tropical wilderness areas of the world.
As a result of our 1987 expedition with Tuttle and Robertson, we became convinced that bats and many tropical plants are inseparable. We thus embarked on a plan to document bat and plant interdependencies as a part of our project, forming partnerships with BCI and bat biologist Nancy Simmons and mammalogist Robert Voss, from the American Museum of Natural History.
Based on the work of Simmons and Voss, we know that central French Guiana harbors as many as 23 bat species that are obligate or predominant fruit eaters and 29 other species that are known or suspected opportunistic fruit eaters. In addition, eight bat species are obligate or predominant nectar consumers and 29 additional species are known or suspected of being opportunistic nectar consumers. Simmons and her research associates estimate that 102 species of bats occur in French Guiana, and have documented 54 species from central French Guiana. They suggest, however, that there may be as many as 86 species of bats in our study area. Over 1,910 species of flowering plants comprise the known flora. Our goal is to document the ways in which this diverse assemblage of bats and plants interact in this relatively undisturbed lowland rain forest.
To accomplish our goal, we depend on students such as Heather Peckham, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. Peckham joined our project in 1999 and 2000 as part of her study of seed dispersal by bats. She describes her experiences in the following article.
John Mitchell joined the Board of Trustees of BCI in 1987 and currently serves as vice-chairman. He is also honorary curator at the New York Botanical Garden.
Scott Mori, long-time BCI member, is Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany in the Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.