Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 38, Issue 2, 2019

America’s Rarest Bat

Q&A with the team leader of BCI’s Florida Bonneted Bat Initiative


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Melquisedec Gamba-Rios

Meet Melquisedec Gamba-Rios. In early 2019, he joined the Bat Conservation International team as our Research Fellow leading our Florida Bonneted Bat Initiative.

He’s a passionate ecologist interested in behavioral ecology and conservation, and has published work on topics including species distribution, habitat selection and roost requirements for multiple bat species, with a particular emphasis on the new-world tropics.

We sat down with Gamba-Rios to better understand his work with the Florida bonneted bat.

Bats: What makes Florida such a unique place for bat conservation?

Gamba-Rios: Florida is a unique geographic location, especially the southern part of the state. South Florida is the convergence of the Caribbean and southern United States fauna and flora, under temperate, subtropical weather. This combination results in an ecosystem that supports substantial diversity, including endemic species such as the Florida bonneted bat (FBB). The rapid urbanization in the region, which limits natural roost and foraging habitat availability, especially combined with climate change, presents a unique set of challenges for conservation.

Bats: What are some of the fundamental questions you hope to answer with the new bat lab?

Gamba-Rios: The FBB is listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This species has the smallest distribution of any endemic bat in the United States, restricted only to southern Florida, and population size is unknown. My research goals are based on key elements in the bats’ life history, such as roost ecology, habitat use and predation. Understanding the behavioral mechanisms that determine those elements and the bats’ response under anthropogenic stimuli is fundamental to predict impacts of human-induced disturbance on animal communities. At the Florida Power and Light (FPL) Bat Lab, we will address fundamental questions about the FBB roost ecology, habitat use, anthropogenic habituation and physiological adaptations in response to climate change and the rapid urbanization within their distribution range.

Bats: What can the Florida bonneted bat tell us about urban bat ecology?

Gamba-Rios: Understanding the FBB ecological roost and habitat requirements in an urban setting will be fundamental to designing conservation strategies and recommendations for the continued expansion of new settlements in South Florida.

Bats: How can communities help protect this species?

Gamba-Rios: First, BCI members can continue educating their own communities about the importance of bats. Our members become an extension of the organization, and as they share their experiences and passion for these mammals, they help us reach more people. The great work of BCI members inspired us to create a new program that we are testing this year in Texas and Florida called the The BCI Bat Ambassador. This program is composed of members of environmental organizations already working with local communities. The ambassadors will be trained by BCI to facilitate up-close, personal encounters with local bat species through bat walks that close the gap between science and the public.
In Southern Florida, a common problem is that FBB and other bat species often live under roofing tiles. When homeowners find bats that must be removed from their roof for a major renovation or repair, we encourage them to contact a wildlife control operator that will humanely exclude the bats from the roof.

Bats: What’s your favorite bat fact?

Gamba-Rios: Wow! Difficult questions, all of them. The reason I love working with bats is that they have hundreds of unique adaptations. These adaptations are driven by high diversity, a worldwide distribution, and long evolutionary processes. For example, the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) has unique adaptations, such as thermal sensors in the nose to help detect blood vessels near the surface of the skin, which help the bat determine the most efficient place to make a small cut with their sharp front teeth. They also have an anticoagulant in the saliva that prevents blood from clotting while the bat laps up the blood with its tongue, which has lateral grooves. These are just a few of the special adaptions this species has in order to feed on mammals’ blood, and this is just one species of the more than 1,300 species worldwide.

Bats: Tell us a bit about your Ph.D. research.

Gamba-Rios: For my doctoral work at the University of Tennessee, I used two different bat species as study systems to understand three main questions: How do prey detect and discriminate predators? Which behaviors do prey use for predator avoidance? And what is the cost of antipredator behaviors for communication and sociality? Using the Spix’s disk-winged bat (Thyroptera tricolor), I documented the first interspecific echolocation call recognition in bats in the context of predator-prey interaction. When predator calls are detected, bats display antipredator behaviors that disrupt social communication and social cohesion. Additionally, I showed that the tent-making bat (Dermanura watsoni) uses auditory cues as the first filter to rate predation risk and, with escalating risk of predation, visual and physical cues play a vital role in antipredation behavior. Finally, I reviewed how wild animals perceive humans as predators and the impacts of nature-based tourism on bats. These impacts may occur mainly at bat roosts during the daytime, having significant consequences on key life-history moments, vigilance, sleep and social behaviors.

Bats: What first interested you about bat ecology?

Gamba-Rios: In 2002, I untangled my first bat from a mist net for a small project during my undergrad work in Costa Rica. I was amazed and overwhelmed by the diversity of bat species, bat-plant interactions and the ecological roles they play in the ecosystem. Over the following few years, I focused on learning and understanding those interactions and factors affecting bat diversity by working with different researchers and the mammals collection at the Natural History Museum of Costa Rica.

 

 

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