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Students research team to further conservation awareness of bats in Mexico

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 02:02

A unique group of student researchers with a variety of interests, from botany to caving to theatre arts, have one unifying goal: bat conservation.

This spring, a team of three A&M students will head to Mexico to conduct research on a species of bat known as the Mexican long-nosed bat.

Ph.D. student Emma Gomez, who received her masters of science degree in environmental management, will lead the research team. She leave in April and stay in Mexico through August. Her major focus is the habitat conditions of the Mexican long-nosed bat in its northern range.

“In the end, my goal is to identify priority areas to protect for the bats,” Gomez said. “But when you get to the ground where those areas are located, you will find local communities. And how to work with those local communities, that takes a different aspect of the project.”

The Mexican long-nosed bat eat nectar and migrate to follow the blooming of the agave plants, which serve as their main food source. The agave plants play an important role in the ecosystem and have other uses such as tequila production. The bats pollinate the agave and help diversify the genetic makeup of the plants.

Based on the location of the agave plants, it is possible to predict potential roosting sites of the bat. Gomez hopes to find some of these sights and protect them.

The social aspect of the project will be tackled by Citlally Jimenez, an undergraduate who is double majoring in wildlife and fisheries and theatre arts. She will be spending her time in Mexico raising bat conservation awareness through theatre performance.

“After spending a year in the theatre department, I’ve realized how effective plays are in conveying messages, because humans are visual creatures,” Jimenez said.

Inspired by the Wildlife Theatre in the Central Park Zoo, Jimenez plans to do small, interactive skits in one of the towns near the caves to teach children and their parents about the bats that live in that area.

To test some of the methods for her skits, Jimenez will be putting on practice shows here on A&M campus the evenings of Feb. 20 and 22 in the Liberal Arts and Humanities building – part of A&M’s Student New Works Festival.

The team’s plan is to try three different methods—lectures, skits and research papers—in different towns surrounding the caves. Based on the audiences’ responses, the team hopes to discover the most effective way to promote conservation awareness.

Rachel Saker, a senior wildlife and fisheries and vertebrate zoology double major, has been caving with the Aggie Speleological Society for more than a year. Her interests in caving and bat biology are the main reasons she was chosen for the team.

“It’s ironically fun that in my spare time, my research right now is to look up black light powders, black lights and UV pigments,” Saker said. “That just kind of goes along with the fun things that I enjoy on my own time, and then getting to have an excuse to go caving for an entire month in Mexico is pretty awesome.”

Saker’s area of research pertains to the foraging habits of the bats in Laguna De Sanchez. With help from the rest of the team, she will be netting bats at interval ranges of 20, 40 and 50 kilometers from the cave and tagging them with different UV powders that react under black light. During the day, they will go into the caves and try to find the bats that are tagged. Based on the UV colors they find most present, the team will be able to determine how far the bats forage during the night, as well as the possibility of other roosting places.

In addition to the bat research being done in Mexico, Thomas Lacher, a mammalogist and professor at Texas A&M, co-leads a study abroad program to Dominica every May-mester. This trip focuses on researching different kinds of animals, including bats, in the Caribbean. Examples of previous bat projects done by students are eco-location and behavioral studies of bats.

Bats are not just found in places like Mexico and the Caribbean. As many students know, Texas A&M has numerous bats nesting under the stadium at Kyle Field and occasionally in the libraries. This is mostly due to the comfortable roosting that these areas provide.

According to Lacher, there are no cons to having bats around as long as they are left alone. In fact, bats actually provide a tremendous benefit by controlling moth and mosquito populations. This form of pest-control saves money that would otherwise be spent on chemical control for mosquitoes and other insects. However, since some bats carry rabies, they should never be handled without the proper equipment, knowledge and vaccinations.

Overall, the main goal of the research that Gomez, Jimenez and Saker are conducting is to create awareness and protection for the bats.

“It’s going to be slow,” Jimenez said. “But I just want to be able to expose [the audiences]. So, a happy result would probably be them just knowing that there are bats out there. That they are good, and they are not scary.”  

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