One hundred percent humidity and over 100-degree-Fahrenheit heat may sound uncomfortable at best, but for a Jamaican flower bat, theres no better place to make a home.
Hundreds of tawny-colored Jamaican flower bats (Phyllonycteris aphylla) happily roost in a Jamaican cave in these sweltering conditions, partially created by their own body heat and the decomposition of their guano on the cave floor.
This hot cave is the only spot where this species has been found in recent history. The Jamaican flower bat, endemic to the country, used to be more widespread. But in 2005, after almost two decades of not being detected in the last cave where it was known to roost, it was considered extinct. In 2010, Jamaicas National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) documented the species in just one cave in the Portland parish of Jamaica.
Now, BCI is doing everything it can to learn more about this mysterious bat and protect its unusual habitat so the critically endangered species can be saved from extinction.
According to Dr. Jon Flanders, director of BCIs endangered species intervention program, the team has been making trips to Jamaica since 2018 to work with NEPA, the Jamaican Caves Organisation, and other in-country partners to carefully resurvey caves that the Jamaican flower bat once inhabited to see if there are any remaining undiscovered colonies.
On their first trip to Jamaica, the team traveled to the Portland cave to view the Jamaican flower bat for themselvesand it didnt take long to find one.
One bat flew straight into my chest, so I just held onto it, Dr. Flanders says. He was able to visually confirm that he did, in fact, accidentally catch a Jamaican flower bat. On a subsequent trip, the team was able to collect samples of bat guano to share with collaborators at Stony Brook University, who will hopefully be able to extract DNA to learn more about the bats diet without disturbing them.
Researchers dont know yet exactly how large the caves bat population is since they havent been able to conduct an official count. During the teams last visit in May 2019, the Jamaican flower bats had just given birth to their pups, so they will return for a count at a later time.
Dr. Flanders and other scientists are also interested in assessing the conditions of caves where they dont find the species. Even though there are over 1,100 caves in Jamaica, not all are suitable for the endemic bat. Once enough bats leave a cave, the fetid, steamy microclimate generated by bat body heat and guano decomposition no longer persists, so it might not be as appealing for them to recolonize.
A number of factors may be upsetting both the bats and this delicate cave ecosystem. Dr. Winifred Frick, BCIs chief scientist, notes the singular cave where the Jamaican flower bat resides is surrounded by urban and suburban development. Theres actually a road that goes over part of the top of the cave, Dr. Frick says.
In a populated area, caves are sometimes used for recreation and also used by people looking to harvest guano for fertilizer. However, when bats have pups, entry to caves can be particularly harmful.
Protecting caves and reducing the access of people and trying to encourage people to harvest guano at times of year when it will have the least impact is really important, Dr. Frick says.
However, there is an alternative to entering a cave to collect guano: bat houses. Bats live in these boxes outside of caves and can provide an easier collection point for guano fertilizer. Dr. Flanders notes the types of bats that live in bat houses are insect eaters, which actually provide better guano than nectivorous bats like the Jamaican flower bat, so its a win-win situation.
An important part of protecting the Jamaican flower bat is finding out exactly what it eats. Researchers know it is a nectar-feeding bat, but there is anecdotal evidence it may also consume different types of fruit. Understanding more about its diet will help BCI and Jamaican scientists know what food sources to protect to ensure the survival of the species. Dr. Flanders is hopeful this new round of research will help the species in the long run.
This is a naturally rare bat that has been heavily impacted by land-use change and continued cave disturbance, Dr. Flanders says. Its up to us to make sure that one cave is protected.
BCI is currently helping raise funds so the Jamaican government can purchase the one cave the Jamaican flower bat lives in, as it is on private land. BCI expects the purchase to be finalized in 2020.