Nerd of the Week

Meet Heather, a Bat Nerd

Interview by Terra Olsen

What are you nerdy for?

Lonchorhina aurita (common sword-nosed bat)

Lonchorhina aurita (common sword-nosed bat)

It might actually be easier to tell you what I am not nerdy about!  I am a huge nerd, for so many different things.   Here is a short list: math, birds, Lord of the Rings, physics, crocheting, baking, wildflowers, chemistry, mud, dichotomous keys…  Mostly, however, I am nerdy for bats.

How did you discover bats?

Four years ago, I went to Costa Rica for the first time to take a class called Neotropical Natural History at La Suerte Biological Field Station, taught by my college adviser, Peter Skylstad.  It was a three-credit biology class condensed into two weeks, and it was super intense.  We had lecture nearly all day, every day and endless field work, both in the morning and at night, to look at birds, snakes, lizards, and frogs.  There were no formal mammal field sessions, since mammals tend to be more secretive and difficult to detect, but we encountered some cool things like kinkajous, mantled howler monkeys, and the ubiquitous white-throated capuchin monkeys.  One night we even spotted a Mexican mouse opossum.

Our class was not the only one at the field station during this time.  There was a large group of students from Quebec, and their professor François was a bit of a bat enthusiast.  In fact, he had been studying bats for many years, and brought mist nets with him to catch bats at La Suerte.  He invited our class to join him in the jungle one night, and it was then that I had my first bat encounter.  François held a number of bats and allowed those in our group who were not afraid to touch their wings and backs.  I was so excited I could barely stand it.  When my turn came, I shakily reached out and touched the wing of my first bat.  Imagine the softest thing you have ever felt in your life, and multiply it by 100.  That is how soft the wing membrane of a bat is.  It took my breath away, and I fell instantly in love with the tiny, delicate, beautiful creatures.

Heather processing a proboscis bat (Rhynchonycteris naso)

Heather processing a proboscis bat (Rhynchonycteris naso)

What about bats sparked the nerd in you? 

A couple nights after this first encounter, François again invited us to join him.  My classmates all wanted to go herping (searching for reptiles and amphibians), but I had caught the bat bug and I accepted his invitation.  That night, he was teaching his students how to use a dichotomous key to identify bats, and he asked them all to speak English so I could understand.  I photographed each bat and wrote down the scientific names: Artibeus jamaicensis, Carollia perspicillata, Carollia castanea.  After a while, François pulled a bat (Glossophaga soricina) out of a holding bag, and said something in French which led to a collective gasp from his students.  He turned to me, holding out the little bat, and said, “She is pregnant.  You may touch her.”  I gently touched the round pregnant belly of this tiny bat, and that was when I had what I refer to as my “Bilbo Baggins moment.”

I felt something deep inside my gut move, and I burst into tears.  I have several theories as to why this happened at this specific time in my life, but suffice to say that something changed in me at that moment, irrevocably so.  I knew I could never again go back to the person I had been, and I did not want to.  I had been wandering around with no clear direction for years, and suddenly I knew my purpose.

The next day I started researching bats and learned as much as I could.  This continued when I got back to Maryland, and even to this day.  The more I learn about bats, the more I love them.  As the only mammals capable of true flight, they are incredibly unique.  There are over 1200 species worldwide and they live in just about every imaginable habitat.  They comprise the second most diverse order of mammals other than rodents, and play a huge role in every ecosystem in which they exist.  They are major seed dispersers and aid reforestation.  They control insects which are agricultural pests or that spread disease.  They pollinate important foods and cash crops (bananas and mangoes!), especially in the tropics.  Bats have even led to breakthroughs in medical science, advancing low temperature heart surgery and helping the blind to “see.”  In some ways, we owe our very existence to bats.  They are also really beautiful, gentle, fascinating creatures, though unfortunately misunderstood and oftentimes needlessly feared and persecuted.

How do you incorporate bats into your life? 

I do not even know where to start!  There is a reason I am now known as Bat Girl.  Since that initial trip, I have returned to Costa Rica twice to conduct a bat activity study and habitat assessment.  I am going for a fourth time in two weeks, in fact.  This past May, I spent all of my savings to travel to Nicaragua for a two-week class in Neotropical Bat Ecology.  Every time I get to choose my own topic for a paper or project at school, I choose bats.  I have a small, yet ever growing, collection of books about bats.  I have spent countless hours reading and researching all aspects not only of bat ecology, but also folklore.  There are bats on my Christmas tree.  I have bat pajamas, socks, and jewelry.  I even have a bat tattoo.  Some may say I am obsessed, but I like to look at it as “weirdly passionate.”

Where do you want to take studying bats in the future?

At the rate I am going, this will take the rest of my life, but my goal is to get a PhD in biology and travel the world studying bats and improving their habitat.  In the meantime, I will continue doing what I am doing: studying, researching, devouring every bit of information I can find about bats, and taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to work with them, especially hands-on.  I spend a lot of time talking about bats, and have given numerous presentations, and I would like to continue educating people about bats and how vital they are to our world.  I have already changed several people’s opinions about bats, and that is a really good feeling.  I guess you could say I want to make the world a better place for bats and humans alike.

Artibeus lituratus (great fruit-eating bat)

Artibeus lituratus (great fruit-eating bat)

Any advice for others interested in bats? 

The most important step anyone interested in bats can take is to educate themselves and others as to the truth about some misconceptions and faulty science related to bats.  Specifically, the general public needs to be educated about bats and rabies.  Legitimate science has shown time and again that not all bats have rabies, and they are not asymptomatic carriers, like raccoons and some other mammals.  Bats can and do contract rabies, however, and no one should ever touch a bat they find on the ground.  Call animal control instead, and always seek medical attention for any bite from a wild mammal of any kind.  Also, bats will not fly directly at you and get caught in your hair.  If they seem to be flying at you, they are actually eating the insects that are swarming around you, and you should thank them.

A really great resource is Bat Conservation International: http://www.batcon.org and on Facebook.  There is also a plethora of books about bats out there.  Some authors to check out are Kunz, Fenton, and Tuttle.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is a great place to start.  Because of the endangered status of many species, and the impending threat of white-nose syndrome, interest in bats has never been timelier.  I implore anyone interested in wildlife, nature, the environment, or conservation to learn about current issues involving bats, especially white-nose syndrome, and get involved in whatever way they can.

Favorite moment or memory involving bats?

I cannot narrow it down to one particular moment, but my trip to Ometepe Biological Field Station in Nicaragua earlier this year was the best time of my life.  I ate delicious, fresh, home cooked food, and spent two weeks on a tropical island studying bats.  I met some amazing people who were also passionate about bats, and made lifelong friends.  I learned how to handle and identify bats.  I spent seven nights processing hundreds of bats, holding them in my hands, and I had the opportunity to teach others about the awesomeness of bats.  I know it sounds weird, but I have to say that the best part of this trip was that on the first night of our fieldwork, I fell and dislocated my shoulder.  I went into shock and somehow popped it back together, and I did not actually know the nature of my injury until a few weeks later (after several doctor appointments, x-rays, and an MRI).  All that I knew was that it hurt worse than any other pain I had experienced, and I could not use my left arm at all.  But I did not let it stop me from making the most of every day and doing as much as I could.  The reason this was the best part is that it taught me a lot about myself, about how much I can take and what I am truly capable of.  Being called a “bad ass” by an ex-Marine definitely helps a person’s self-esteem.

Heather with with a greater fishing bat (Noctilio leporinus)

Heather grew up in Portland, Oregon, and went to high school in Vancouver, Washington.  She attended Clackamas Community College as a math major, then worked for several years in forest conservation, specifically focusing on the Mt. Hood National Forest. When she was 28, she bought her dream car (1985 Volvo wagon) and moved to Garrett County, Maryland, high in the Appalachian Mountains, to get a degree in Natural Resources and Wildlife Technology from Garrett College.  She currently lives with her cat, Gypsy, in Oakland, Maryland, and tutors math and science at the college.  She also enjoys baking, crocheting, making mix CDs, road tripping, camping, and sleeping.  Check out her facebook page: Western Maryland Nerd Society.

For more information about the classes mentioned above, or the many others offered by Maderas Rainforest Conservancy either at La Suerte (Costa Rica) or Ometepe Biological Field Station (Nicaragua) check out their website: http://www.maderasrfc.org

Do you know a self-proclaimed nerd we should interview? If so, please contact Terra at terra@haveyounerd.com and tell us about them.
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