Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 38, Issue 3, 2019

Oh, the places you’ll go!

BCI Student Scholarships help researchers reach not only remote locations, but also their dreams

By Michelle Z. Donahue


In Mexico, Nayelli Rivera stands on a ladder leaned against an organ pipe cactus, reaching to pluck a pitaya fruit glommed onto one of its prickly arms. For the organ pipe cactus to produce the delicious pitaya fruit, the flowers must be pollinated by nectar-sipping animals, most often by the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae). Rivera is studying the foraging behavior of the lesser long-nosed bat to help local farmers adopt sustainable practices for pitaya fruit production—a subsistence-based harvest that drives the local economy of the rural village of Techaluta in Jalisco, Mexico.

In Malaysia, Stanimira Deleva crawls deep within the spring-fed Deer Cave to collect water. The cave is home to a large colony of wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaerephon plicata). Deleva must delve deep to go where the bats don’t go: she is in search of clean water, free of guano. Emerging from the cave mouth, she takes additional samples of water; moving downstream, she clips the foliage of bryophytes and arums and bags them for chemical analysis. She has a hunch that bat caves may be critical suppliers of nutrients to downstream plants when high water periodically flushes out the accumulated guano inside the cave, and that this may be the case in forests around the world.

Clad in protective latex gloves, Samantha Hoff carefully handles a northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) captured on the coast of Long Island, New York. The northern long-eared bat is one of the species most severely impacted by the fungal disease White-nose Syndrome and has rapidly disappeared after the fungus invaded its winter homes. Hoff is studying whether the mild coastal climate on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard Island provides a refuge for over-winter survival and supports a sustainable remnant population of northern long-eared bats.

Despite the differences in their study locations and research questions, all of these graduate student researchers share a common thread: they and six other individuals are the 2019 recipients of BCI Student Scholarships.

From its very first days as an organization, the mission of Bat Conservation International has been to ensure the lasting survival of the world’s 1,400+ species of bats. Also, from its earliest days, BCI has supported the ideas and questions of the next cohort of researchers who will carry that mission forward into the future.

The scholarships are a key element of BCI’s efforts to expand global capacity in bat conservation, said Winifred Frick, Ph.D., BCI’s Chief Scientist. She added that the research supported by the funds helps to fill critical data gaps necessary for effective conservation of at-risk species.

“For conservation to be effective, students who are asking important questions need to be empowered to address those questions as part of their research,” Frick said. “It’s not just an investment in research. It’s an investment in people.”

Since 1990, BCI has awarded $1,136,272 through its Student Scholarship program. Available for students pursuing master’s and doctoral-level degrees, this flagship program is one of relatively few that enable bat-specific research. But the impacts are truly global: as of 2018, the scholarships have enabled research in 70 countries, on every continent except Antarctica (the only landmass on the planet that lacks bats).

Since the program’s inception, BCI grants have supported over 400 projects and have been matched by more than $8.5 million in outside research funds. And competition is high: more than 1,600 applicants have sought support from the BCI Student Scholarship fund since 1995. In that time, just over 1,100 applications were accepted for review.

“These scholarships have helped many people at the beginning of their careers who went on to dedicate their research to bat science, ecology and conservation,” added Frick. “And looking at the list of past awardees, it’s a veritable who’s who in bat conservation circles,” including the chair of BCI’s Board of Directors, Cullen Geiselman, who was a grant recipient in 2007.

“The impact of BCI’s student scholarships cannot be overstated,” Geiselman said. “These small injections of support have helped to launch hundreds of careers in bat biology and conservation, from Argentina to New Zealand. This is our next generation of leaders.”

Proposed projects should fit into one or more of three guiding criteria:

  1. A better understanding of how human-caused environmental changes pose threats to global bat biodiversity, such as land use, climate change or habitat destruction;
  2. Research to resolve bat-human conflicts;
  3. Answering ecological or behavioral questions essential to the conservation of species listed by the IUCN as at-risk or data-deficient.

“We’re looking for people who have a passion and dedication for what they’re doing,” said Jon Flanders, Ph.D., Director of Endangered Species Interventions for BCI. “And though it’s a relatively small amount of money at this stage of their careers, it helps their potential grow.”

Reilly Jackson, a University of Tennessee graduate student who has worked to quantify the economic impact of bats living in limestone karst caves in Cambodia, said that the BCI grant she received in 2017 opened a great number of doors. For one, it helped her land an offer of a Ph.D. research position at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, the base from which Jackson will be studying disease ecology of bats in southern Kenya for the next four to six years.

“It was because of the Cambodia project—for which I was the only one in-country for two months of data collection, running everything on my own—that put me into some situations I’d never been in before,” Jackson recalled, laughing. “One of the major reasons I was offered the position was because of my experience working in foreign countries, being able to get work done in remote places, and working with a wide variety of investors and stakeholders.”

Rivera said that it was learning about the loss of bat biodiversity, bats’ essential role in pollination, and the resonating negative impacts to ecosystem services from that loss, that drove her toward a career in bat biology. The Student Scholarship program has helped make it possible for her to pursue pitaya research by covering the costs of the tiny GPS transmitters she uses for her project.

For Deleva, the Malaysian field work couldn’t have happened without the Student Scholarship funding. And now with a third site to compare to the same work done in Costa Rica and her home country of Bulgaria, she said it makes the results globally applicable—and has put a crack in the idea that caves are closed ecosystems with limited spheres of influence.

And Hoff said that the grant helps efforts to fill in the many knowledge gaps about northern long-eared bat biology—but also for her and her collaborators to pursue stronger community outreach efforts, such as the recent call for Long Island, Nantucket and Vineyard residents, who have crawl spaces beneath their homes, to inspect for bats that may be using them as roosts. This and other efforts are critical for informing conservation strategies to support the long-term survival of the coastal populations of the species, Hoff said.

“Money is often the limiting factor for wildlife-related research, and despite having an extremely supportive network of partners, we would not be able to accomplish our objectives without outside funding sources,” she said. “BCI’s support shows that this research is valued and important to the larger bat conservation effort.”

 

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