Wednesday, April 14, 2010

And look ... a bat!

One of the really cool things about being here at the research station is meeting and interacting with all of the other researchers here. Everyone is studying an impressive variety of things. I’m sure I’m missing people, but aside from the pichico team, there are people studying: raptors and mercury, ant-tree interactions, ants, mosquitoes, seed dispersal by primates, mining-site regeneration, the short-eared dog, bats, long-horn beetles, peccary, and the essential oil of the palm fruit.

The other night, Adrian asked if we wanted to help him set up mist nets to catch bats. Mini, Gideon, Adrian’s parents (visiting from Miami), Sarah, Musmuqi the owl monkey, and I headed out to the appointed trail a little before dusk. Earlier in one of our trapping attempts, Adrian helped us set up mist nets to snag tamarins. It was, sadly, unsuccessful, so we were all eager to see mist netting in action.
Mist nets are long, wide nets with a mesh of maybe ½ inch squares. They have 5 or 6 guidelines running taut along the length of the net, with loose mesh creating pockets running along beneath the guidelines. They are frighteningly prone to tangle, but when untangled and stretched out by bamboo poles on either side, they cover from about 3-10 feet off the ground for maybe 20-30 feet. The mesh is thin enough that bats (and birds, who are also frequently mist-netted) don’t see it and fly into the netting, where they get tangled up enough that they can’t fly back out. The getting stuck technique was brilliantly demonstrated by Musmuqi, who is really getting great at launching himself onto a variety of hanging objects. In case you’re wondering, it takes 3 people about 10 minutes to extricate a struggling baby owl monkey from a mist net, and they’ll only get bitten 4 or 5 times.

Fortunately for the bats, Adrian is much more adept at removing them than we are at removing owl monkeys (perhaps it’s for the best that we didn’t catch tamarins in our mist nets!). When the night began, Adrian said 5 bats would be a good night! Our sights set high as dusk fell, everyone spread out along the nets, waiting for the first visitor. We didn’t have long to wait, as an exciting, small, insectivorous bat flew directly into the net shortly after everything was set up. Bats are really amazing looking little guys. The ones we were catching all had nose-leafs, protrusions of skin on their noise that look like small, bat-skin-colored leaves (they were, appropriately enough, the Leaf-Nosed bats. Similar, but unrelated to Odd-Nosed monkeys). The skin between the digits on their wings is thin and rubbery – imagine something between a balloon, a rubber glove, and a tissue. Seeing the wings all spread out next to someone’s arm was like one of those illustrations of homologous structures from an introductory biology textbook.

All told, Adrian netted 9 bats in about an hour and a half. Those of us on the tamarin team were impressed, but also painfully jealous! If only the monkeys were so eager to fall into our clutches… Unfortunately, trapping tamarins is a pretty arduous task. I believe I mentioned the Chiky Basterd Guy, our baby monkey who calls to attract wild tamarins to the trap. He gets taken out to a trap every day for about 7 hours, plied with bananas and water, and acts as bait to entice the other tamarins to come eat our yummy bananas so we can steal their genetic data. Slow going (after more than a week here, we’re VERY excited that the group sniffed a bunch of bananas today), but if this spot works well, we’ll add another 18 monkeys to our trapped column!

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