Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 35, Issue 3, 2016

Studying Abroad

BCI grants make it possible for graduate students to gain a foothold in research

Grace Smarsh is studying the singing habits of heart-nosed bats,
(Cardioderma cor). "This species is rather birdlike in some ways. When you
walk around at night, you can hear them singing from trees
around you like you're listening to birds in a forest," says Smarsh.
Photo: Grace Smarsh

From investigating the interactions between island flying foxes with plants and people on the island of Tioman in Malaysia, to learning Swahili to better study the hows and whys of singing in the heart-nosed bats of Tanzania, the study of bats can involve spending many weeks and months in isolated, inhospitable locales. And though the study of any animal has its own unique challenges, the study of these elusive, nocturnal and often rare creatures requires special creativity and patience from scientists in order to collect useful data and observations.

And then there’s the work required to keep it all afloat. Even established researchers must spend considerable amounts of time ensuring they can continue their work by securing funding and support. For the next generation of scientists, it is this aspect of science that can be most daunting for new entrants to the field. BCI’s Small Grants and Scholarships help, in part, by making it easier for graduate students and conservationists to focus on their work.

Field work is more than just catching bats! Grace learned Swahili
to effectively work with her team and villagers in Tanzania.
Photo: Grace Smarsh

“Students working on bat conservation have not selected the easy path,” said Winifred Frick, BCI’s Senior Director of Conservation Science. “They have not chosen a path for minimizing risk and maximizing academic success, but instead a challenge to make a difference in often very complex environmental problems. Without student researchers willing to tackle these challenges, without their grit and ingenuity to answer questions about bat ecology and conservation, we’d be in the dark on how to protect bats.”

For Texas A&M graduate researcher Grace Smarsh, who spent 17 months over three years in Tanzania studying the songs of heart-nosed bats (Cardioderma cor), BCI’s support translated directly into funding for equipment essential to understanding the bats’ movements throughout their habitat.

“BCI was extremely important for the success of this project,” Smarsh said. With funding from the National Science Foundation, she was able to establish several field sites in the vicinity of the village of Kikavu Chini, within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania’s northeastern Hai district. But only with additional support by BCI was Smarsh able to purchase VHF telemetry equipment to track the bats’ movements throughout the study areas, a critical element for understanding the context of the bats’ song repertoire and the ability to test hypotheses about their behavior.

Photo: Grace Smarsh

“Singing has been heavily studied in only a few bat species, but there are notes of singing in quite a few,” Smarsh said. “We don’t know much about the purpose of singing and repertoire diversity of bats in general, and even less for bats outside of the roost. My work is showing that singing in this species is used to create and maintain foraging territories.”

In Malaysia, Ph.D. candidate Sheema Abdul Aziz is piecing together a better picture of the role the island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) plays in Tioman Island’s ecology, and how to use the information she gathers to promote a more peaceful coexistence between the bats and the island’s residents, who generally perceive them as crop-damaging pests.

Additionally, as the co-founder of Rimba, a non-profit conservation research group, Aziz plans to extend her work for Malaysian bat conservation even after the completion of her doctorate degree.

Sheema Abdul Aziz is piecing together a
better picture of the role the island flying fox
(Pteropus hypomelanus) plays in Tioman
Island's ecology.
Photo: Conrad Wothe

“There’s really very little effort or motivation to protect and conserve [bats] here—they aren’t really perceived as being charismatic animals,” Aziz said. “Most Malaysians don’t see bats as being important in any way. So we really urgently need data to show people that having bats around is actually beneficial.”

After designing an entire study from scratch, one of Aziz’s major findings was that the island flying foxes probably help, rather than hurt, economically valuable durian trees. In Southeast Asia, this “king of fruits” is a critical cash crop, driving a thriving export market and even attracting tourists to regions where they are grown to take advantage of fresh, ripe fruit. By wrangling camera traps into the crowns of tall trees, Aziz found that while the bats did feed on durian flower nectar, they didn’t eat or even damage the flowers, as had long been assumed.

She is hopeful that findings like these will help cast the bats in a new light as critical ecosystem partners, and bolster efforts to protect bats from hunting and persecution throughout the country and region.

“The funding from BCI was quite literally a lifeline for my research,” Aziz said. “The first year of my Ph.D. was really tough because I hardly had any funding to do my work; [it was] demoralizing, and made me feel like giving up. So BCI not only injected new life into my project, but also into my own personal confidence, enthusiasm and passion for bat conservation. I’m hugely grateful."

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