Media & Education
Volume 35, Issue 2, 2016
Beyond the Menagerie
Zoos’ new efforts put boots on the ground to help preserve and protect bats outside their gates
By Michelle Z. Donahue
When a second Florida bonneted bat showed up on Frank Ridgley’s doorstep at Zoo Miami in late 2014, he thought he knew a bit of what he was in for. After all, he’d been a key player in the first-ever successful rehabilitation of an injured bonneted bat just the year before.
But when he offered the new arrival a morsel of waxworm to eat, the bat, dubbed Bruce, latched on and began to suckle. A baby. Ridgley realized he was in for a much longer haul.
As a lead veterinarian for Zoo Miami and the head of its recently created conservation and research arm, Ridgley has been working to identify gaps in species research being performed in the local area and around south Florida, where there are an exceptionally high number of threatened and endangered species.
Florida bonneted bats (Eumops floridanus) are among the United States’ most endangered bat species, but so little is known about them that their populations cannot be accurately estimated. Though they’re Florida’s largest bat, with wingspans of up to 20 inches, bonneted bats are screamingly fast, high-flying and thoroughly elusive. Neither easily captured nor easily found, dedicated studies on them are sparse. Less than a half-dozen confirmed colony roosts have been documented, two of which are in the immediate Miami-Dade area.
One problem is that the bats’ prime habitat in the Miami-Dade area, the pine rocklands that once blanketed much of south-central Florida, are now fragmented and scarce. Zoo Miami’s 740 acres is one of the largest remaining scraps of pine rockland remaining in the state.
“We’ve had such rapid urbanization,” Ridgley said. “If they’ve still managed to hang on here after everything that’s happened in the last 100 years, we want to give them a fighting chance and give them a setting where they can be at less risk.”
Reports of Florida bonneted bats foraging above the zoo and in three nearby parks led Ridgley to seek funding to develop several acoustic monitoring studies in search of new information about the bats’ foraging activity. This work revealed a connection between bat use and pine rockland habitat, which points to pine rockland habitat restoration as another strategy for supporting the bats locally. The information gathered from this acoustic work, habitat restoration and other strategies have helped expand Zoo Miami’s conservation efforts in a new, more tangible way.
“Here’s this really endangered bat living in an urban setting, but they’re coming out to our property to forage,” Ridgley said. “It’s added a lot to our knowledge. We don’t want to ignore what’s in our own backyard.”
The Right Strategy
With over 180 million Americans visiting the nation’s 220 accredited zoos and aquariums each year— more than the combined number of people who attend all professional sporting events—zoos are exceptionally well-positioned to engage the public on priority issues. Collectively, zoos spend an estimated $150 to $160 million each year on conservation efforts, said Shelly Grow, Director of Conservation programs for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Though this most often comes in the form of educational programs, exhibits and knowledge relayed through docents, signage and informational campaigns, zoos also play a key role in active, in-the-field species conservation around the world.
Large, easily recognizable “charismatic megafauna” get the lions’ share of funding for habitat and species conservation. Creating programs for animals that aren’t particularly cute or are often regarded as a nuisance, as is often the case with bats, is a harder sell. Zoos are reluctant to invest time and money in species that their patrons and guests cannot connect directly with, but there’s certainly room to explore working with threatened species in their own regions.
“Bats do get the short end of the stick, because they’re not all that sexy,” said Cullen Geiselman, chair of Bat Conservation International’s board and who also serves on the board of the Houston Zoo. “There’s huge potential to educate audiences at zoos on what the needs are for the animals and conservation, but zoos can also do more with their local fauna.”
Whether or not local bats can be kept in captivity as part of a zoo’s collection is a different matter entirely. Zoos have been able to breed bats in captivity, but this has been limited mainly to larger fruit-eating bats. Insectivorous bats, which make up the majority of North American bats, are difficult to keep in captivity, let alone breed. Partly this is because their diets and hibernation requirements are poorly understood.
“The bat rehabilitation and research communities have done a good job with keeping small numbers of hibernating bats, but with really high investment,” said Mylea Bayless, BCI’s Senior Director of Conservation for the United States and Canada. “There’s a lot of one-on-one handfeeding of individual bats, and that’s a significant investment of time. It’s really difficult to do this in a zoo setting. That’s been the challenge: How do you take insectivorous bat care to scale? We need this first before we can achieve effective breeding programs.”
Just how difficult a proposition this is was underscored by a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful, undertaking at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in 2009. Biologists brought in 40 endangered Virginia big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) to protect them from decimation by White-nose Syndrome that winter. Though some bats learned to eat mealworms from pans, many did not; the bats had difficulty grooming themselves and developed infections that resisted treatment. Despite aggressive interventions by zoo biologists and veterinarians, most of the bats died within months.
Fruit bats tend to fare better in captivity because their needs are easier to meet—for one, they are well adapted to eating food that doesn’t fly away. Insectivorous bats face a steep learning curve when they must suddenly learn to eat from a dish, and they’re also smaller and far more fragile.
The Rodrigues fruit bat (Pteropus rodricensis), once among the rarest bats in the world, is one of the best examples of a bat species that benefited from careful captive breeding and husbandry. Though none of the captive individuals have yet been reintroduced to their home range, they remain an important reservoir population should anything happen to their wild cousins, and an ongoing relationship between a zoo and a local wildlife group is helping ensure that the wild populations have the best chance possible.
Fortified For Action
The Rodrigues fruit bat is endemic to Rodrigues, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean nearly 400 miles east of Mauritius and more than a thousand miles from Madagascar. In the 1970s, only 70 of the Rodrigues fruit bats were left on the island following decades of deforestation, but after the Rodriguan government and local agencies began more assiduous replanting efforts, the bats’ populations began to increase. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) took some into captivity to breed as a reserve population, and since 1998, the Philadelphia Zoo has worked with MWF to fund and support the Rodrigues Environmental Education Program (REEP), said Kim Lengel, the zoo’s Vice President of Conservation and Education.
Coordinated by environmental educator Lilliana Ally, who hails from the island, REEP works to invest the community in protecting its ecosystems through reforestation work, creek cleanups, contests for kids and island-wide bat counts, among other things. A new challenge, now that the bats are more common and visiting islanders’ gardens and fruit orchards more often, is how to advance the strategy to include peaceful coexistence. Though the bats are understated, they’re emphasized within the context of overall environmental restoration.
“Conservation is never static—it always needs to evolve,” Lengel said, who spent two months in Rodrigues with another colleague from the Philadelphia Zoo in 1998 to lay the groundwork for REEP and do field surveys of extant bats.
Even with its own nursery for propagating seedlings, fencing off sensitive areas to prevent browsing by free-roaming livestock and convincing locals to grow plants in their gardens they would otherwise harvest from wild sources, the process of reforestation is slow. Non-native eucalyptus is rampant, though bats seem to have embraced them as roosting and foraging sites. A lack of tropical cyclones has also helped the bat population grow, but reverting the island to a more endemic state is a challenge.
“What turned the tide for these bats was the people in Rodrigues understanding this is a species other people cared about,” Lengel said. “It’s not just a bat found on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, but also in zoos around the world, and that people cared about them and were following their story. It helped galvanize the support of the people on the island.”
Five thousand miles away in Victoria, Australia, another zoo is preparing to implement a carefully considered plan to prevent another of its own native species from slipping into extinction: the southern bent-wing bat (Miniopterus schreibersii bassanii).
The bent-wing bat is one of 20 priority species included in Zoos Victoria’s ambitious five-year species recovery master plan, which proclaims that no Victorian terrestrial vertebrate will go extinct on their watch. The zoo aims to combine a better understanding of the bat’s biology, population levels, habitats and local environmental impacts with community partnerships, local awareness and habitat protection to keep the bent-wing bat from suffering the same fate as the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi). The final calls of that now-extinct species were recorded in August 2009 by Zoos Victoria researchers, even as they hunted for the last tiny survivor to try to bring it into captivity.
Rupert Baker, Manager of Life Science at Zoos Victoria’s Healesville Sanctuary, was among those hunting for the pipistrelle that year. He said though precise strategies for the bent-wing bat are still being finalized—whether that means focusing more on cave restoration, or on population monitoring, or by creating a hearts-and-minds strategy like that on Rodrigues—the zoo does not intend to let history repeat itself. “We will take appropriate action,” Baker said.
Plenty Of Room To Grow
Whichever suite of conservation strategies a zoo chooses, ultimately, that mix is a highly personalized goal, said Geiselman. For bats, which are often popular attractions at particular times of year (Halloween!), consistent educational efforts remain a key pillar in the effort to save threatened and endangered species.
Houston Zoo, for example, hosts websites for small organizations that don’t have the expertise or resources to do it themselves, and assists with the creation of marketing materials and videos.
“Each zoo has its own level of ability, and each one does it slightly different,” Geiselman said.
AZA’s Grow said that though ailments like White-nose Syndrome have raised the profile of bats in the public’s mind, this greater awareness presents a springboard toward more action. It’s prompted zoos to have more discussions for how to address issues, including disease, before they boil over into crisis.
“The disease and health issues that affect bats tie into a larger discussion of disaster responsiveness,” Grow said. “There’s an awareness that we need to be poised and ready to step up a little bit more.”
Dave Waldien, BCI’s Senior Director of Global Conservation, agrees, and urges zoos to have more direct participation even beyond education or funding of partner groups. Successful conservation is more feasible with people and organizations working together.
“My vision is that zoos will be much more proactively engaged in applied conservation in the future,” Waldien said. “One of their strengths is understanding what messages resonate with people, which helps raise the awareness of bats, and is part of the foundation for sustainable conservation. Teaching people to value species like the Florida bonneted bat, the Rodrigues fruit bat, or any of the other 75 globally endangered bats is desperately needed and zoos are well positioned to meet this need.”
Ridgley, at Zoo Miami, added that the zoo’s function as ambassador for animals also remains indispensible.
“It’s our role to get that human connection to a certain species, and there are a lot of great people who have worked to champion a species who met that animal in a zoo and made a connection,” Ridgley said. “It triggered something in them to work for the rest of their lives to save that species.”