Researchers gather for in-depth exploration of Central American bats

Glossophaga soricina, Sherri & Brock Fenton

In November, more than 50 bat researchers gathered near Belize’s Lamanai Archaeological Reserve to connect and study bats together. Deep in the jungle, the attendees, who ranged from students to senior researchers, explored neotropical bats. Unlike conferences, there were no official meetings, papers, posters, or keynote speeches to prepare or attend. Instead, the researchers trekked into the reserve together to conduct fieldwork, capture bats, collect data, and exchange knowledge.

The annual gathering (which was postponed for a year and a half due to COVID) is informally dubbed the “Belize Bat-a-thon” or “Brock’s Bat-a-thon” in honor of its founder, Bat Conservation International (BCI) Board Member Dr. Brock Fenton. He started the event in 2007, and BCI Board Member Dr. Nancy Simmons is now co-organizer.

During this year’s two-week gathering, more than 950 individual bats were captured. This year, the researchers started a new system of outfitting the bats with a “microchip,” known as a PIT tag, which is the same type of tag that veterinarians implant in pets. The tags allow the researchers to follow individual animals over time and know if the same bats are recaptured each year. 

While the event is typically held in April, COVID delays led to a November gathering this year, which allowed for a new experience.

“It’s interesting because it was held during a different time of year than it’s traditionally always been, so there were some differences in terms of what we found and captured,” says BCI’s Chief Scientist Dr. Winifred Frick. “It’s unclear if that’s due to seasonal differences or just good luck that we caught some of the rare species.”

Researchers captured 35 different species, from frugivorous, nectarivorous, and insectivorous species, to carnivorous bats that feed on rats and birds. Frick points to species such as the spectral bat (Vampyrum spectrum), as well as the wrinkle-faced bat (Centurio senex), and Peter’s red bat (Lasiurus frantzii) as some of the highlights. 

They caught a few common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus), but based on their work over the past 14 years, they expected to find many more of them. “On future trips, we will try to find out where they might have gone,” Dr. Fenton says.

Desmodus rotundus pup, Sherri & Brock Fenton

Lamanai Archaeological Reserve contains a variety of habitat types, from forests and savannas to water bodies and caves. Bats often use trails between the Mayan temples and other archaeological features in the reserve, and researchers set up mist-nets and harp traps in different areas to capture bats. The reserve is also near the Lamanai Field Research Center, which helped with logistics, permits, and obtaining necessary permissions, while also providing lab space, freezers, supplies, and equipment—like the boats needed to survey the lagoon. Attendees stayed at the adjacent Lamanai Outpost Lodge, which provides comfortable lodging and delicious meals, allowing researchers to fully enjoy the unique event and very long hours in the field.

“The neotropical bats are so wonderfully diverse,” Dr. Frick says. “It’s so interesting to be able to see so many different kinds of species with different foraging habits, and then the chance to work alongside colleagues that you meet at conferences, and you know their work but you don’t often have the opportunity to work in the field together.” Dr. Frick and other attendees are already looking forward to next year’s Belize Bat-a-thon gathering. 

“On every trip to Lamanai we have discovered new things,” Dr. Fenton says. “Sometimes it’s a species we have not seen there before, or bats in roosts we did not know about. Other times, discoveries grow out of new findings about bats, and because the mix of bat biologists always varies, each brings their own background and ideas.”