Volume 38, Issue 1, 2019

Back from the Brink

Safeguarding the last refuge of the Jamaican flower bat


At Stony Hill Cave in Jamaica’s northeastern corner, bats stream out in a crazed evening rush, the beat of their wings competing with the chorus of insect song ringing down from the thick forest canopy. The air just inside the cave is hot, and pungent with guano. At least five species live here, including the pale-furred, snub-nosed Jamaican flower bat (Phyllonycteris aphylla).

There are thought to be less than 250 Jamaican flower bats left in the wild. 
Courtesy of Winifred Frick / Bat Conservation International

The discovery of Jamaican flower bats roosting here in 2010 came as a surprise: the species hadn’t been seen in nearly two decades and was presumed extinct. One of the only known roosts for the surviving 250 adults of the species, Stony Hill Cave may be the Jamaican flower bat’s final refuge.

Though Stony Hill lies beneath a scrubby, undeveloped parcel, it is privately owned, and bounded by a road servicing a neighborhood of sparsely scattered homes and farms. Were the land ever to be developed, consequences for the Jamaican flower bat would likely be disastrous.

That concern is now greatly reduced: Bat Conservation International and Jamaica’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) have taken concrete steps toward purchasing and protecting the cave site. Recently, a team of BCI experts traveled to the island to lay groundwork for the future of the cave’s management and protection of the critically endangered Jamaican flower bat and other resident cave species.

Andrea Donaldson, NEPA’s projects manager, says that even though her agency is well-versed in assessment and management for birds and terrestrial species, BCI’s expertise in the subterranean habitats and the bats that depend on them will equip her and her colleagues with an all-new set of tools.

“Managing a cave with an endangered species is a role we’ve never taken on before,” Donaldson says. “BCI’s expertise in doing this elsewhere will help us ensure the survival of this species.”

Over the next five years, BCI will assist NEPA with identifying and gathering essential knowledge it will need to successfully protect vulnerable bat habitat and species.

That work includes identifying population distributions and habitat use of the Jamaican flower bat and several other at-risk bat species, such as the critically endangered Jamaican greater funnel-eared bat (Natalus jamaicensis) and the vulnerable Jamaican red bat (Lasiurus degelidus). The teams will also work to identify key threats to foraging and roosting habitat—housing developments, farming, mining, logging and invasive, non-native predators are just a few of the threats bats face in Jamaica.

While initial groundwork for this project began in 2017 with the hire of BCI’s International Program Manager, additional support—including over $200,000 raised during an annual appeal—has increased BCI’s capacity to move forward and take the critical first steps towards developing a management plan in collaboration with NEPA. Conducting surveys, like in-depth 3D scans, provides detailed maps of the caves, which will help guide decisions for land use adjacent to the caves’ underground structures. Acoustic and infrared monitoring provide data on current resident species, while the installation of unobtrusive temperature and humidity sensors establishes baseline environmental data to determine changes in the subterranean conditions.

“Developing a management plan along with our Jamaican partners applies beyond Stony Hill Cave,” says Kevin Pierson, BCI’s Chief Conservation Officer. “There are many more bats to talk about, and the work at this cave is a tangible first step to do a whole lot of other conservation on the island.”

 

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