Volume 37, Issue 2, 2018

The Sweetest Fruits

Researcher demonstrates the importance of bat pollination for pitaya crops

Veronica Zamora-Gutierrez takes a break from field work.
Courtesy of César Guzmán

Veronica Zamora-Gutierrez is a passionate conservationist, researcher, and BCI scholar who aims to reduce the loss of biodiversity in bats. Currently, she is working alongside her colleagues at the University of Southampton to illustrate the value of bat pollination services in an effort to inspire future conservation efforts. Bats sat down with her to learn more about this research. 

Bats: What is the focus of your research?

Gutierrez: We are currently focusing on bat pollination and their pest suppression services. We are studying the interaction of bats, flowers and insects. Once we have determined that bats either pollinate or consume pests, we then focus on what will happen if bats are removed from the system— how much that will affect us in monetary terms. The socioeconomic aspects are very important for these projects, so we conduct interviews to develop the value chain of the products we are studying, to estimate the economic input bats provide to the studied economic system.

Photo of field area and the stars above.
Courtesy of César Guzmán

Bats: What were the results of this study?

Gutierrez: We had amazing results. We focused on how important bats are for the pollination of pitayas, a columnar cacti fruit (Stenocereus queretaroensis) that is cultivated and sold in Jalisco, Mexico. Using exclusion experiments for different pollinator taxa, we found that bats are the most important pollinators for this economically important fruit in the region, and that pollination-by-bat not only produces more fruits, but the most commercially desirable fruits—as flowers pollinated by bats gave the biggest and sweetest fruits, which are the most expensive in the market. This shows how important bats are for maintaining the economic system of local communities, which depend highly on the pitaya income.

Bats: What are some threats facing these bats?

Gutierrez: I published a study focusing on the effects of climate and land use change on Mexican bat distribution. Results were not promising, as the Mexican bat fauna is projected to lose environmental suitability in large portions of most species ranges. The main threats for bats are similar as for biodiversity in general: extremely high rates of deforestation, indiscriminate extension of agricultural and grazing areas, plus the synergetic negative effects of changes in climatic patterns around the globe.

Bats: Why do we need to protect these bats?

Gutierrez: If bats eventually have to change their ranges to find a more suitable climate, there will be mismatches between bats, their food sources and their roost sites. If bats are no longer there to pollinate plants that depend highly upon them or to suppress the insect population, we will have to somehow replace those natural and free ecosystem services or be willing to lose them. That will translate to possible pest outbreaks, loss of crops by insect damage and lack of pollination, among extinction cascades that we may not even be aware of.



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