Volume 37, Issue 1, 2018

Bat Chats: Molecular Ecology

Understanding how bat populations are connected


Jon holds a spectral bat (Vampyrum spectrum) during 
field work Courtesy of Jon Flanders/BCI

How can the study of molecular ecology inform bat conservation? Bats sat down with Jon Flanders, Ph.D., BCI’s International Program Manager, to find out and to learn what it is like to study a wide variety of bat species around the world.

Bats: What first sparked your interest in bats?

Flanders: Although I’ve always been interested in wildlife, I didn’t focus on bats until my undergraduate degree (I was actually more interested in amphibians!). For my degree program, I spent a year working at a nature conservation organization (National Trust, U.K.). My boss there, David Bullock, is one of the country’s leading experts on bat conservation and he took me to catch my first bat—a Daubenton’s bat under a bridge in Gloucestershire. From then I was hooked. After completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to do a master’s and a Ph.D. all on bats.

Bats: Your studies focus on molecular ecology of bats; how does this dovetail with conservation efforts?

Flanders: Molecular tools can be really valuable for helping clarify what biodiversity is present and how populations are connected, which helps us better manage and conserve species. You normally have a limited amount of time and resources in the field, and many species of bat are very hard (or impossible) to tell apart morphologically. By evaluating the species’ genetics, we can trace how populations are linked, if they seem to be growing or shrinking, what genetic problems they might face in the future, or even if there are multiple species that look identical. From there we can make informed decisions about managing these species.

Bats: Your work has taken you across the globe. What are some of the most memorable moments from your travels?

Flanders: I have really enjoyed getting to observe the incredible diversity of bats. After years of working in Britain and Asia, I was working in Mexico and caught 43 species of bat while I was there, including Vampyrum spectrum, the largest bat in the Americas and 20 times bigger than any British bat. I was also lucky enough to catch Centurio senex, more commonly known as the wrinkled-faced bat, and a bucket list species for most bat biologists. There was also that time I stood on a less-than-stable pile of rocks in a cave with my Chinese colleague standing on my shoulders so we could reach a bat that looked different from all the others we had seen that day. Despite almost breaking a few bones in the process, it ended up being worth it as we were able to document the range extension of a rare bat.

Bats: You’ve worked extensively on outreach efforts for researchers and students. What is some advice you would like to give those interested in bat conservation research?

Flanders: Make connections—it’s a surprisingly small world! Don’t be afraid to go to new places and work with different people. Embrace every experience you can get; you never know what will end up being useful.

 

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