I think anyone who cares about wildlife eventually comes to love bats, even if their interest began with jaguars! Their diversity, their amazing adaptations, their importance as pollinators and their undeniable plain ol’ coolness makes them worthy of our respect and protection. I find bats fascinating, but my interest pales in comparison to Mexico’s famous “bat man”, Professor Rodrigo Medellín and I am very excited to present this Q&A with him. Muchas gracias, Dr Medellín!!!
- How did you become interested in wildlife in general and bats in particular?
Long story. I have been into studying animals all my life, literally. My first word was not mama or papa. It was flamingo. Of course in a toddler language but my mom recorded it as I was looking at a book with a flamingo picture. Then I started growing up, appeared on national tv for the 64,000 peso contest (story has been told many times) and a professor at the University called me home and invited me to join his field crew, which I did. Bats blew me away from the very first field trip, because of their diversity, the extremely little knowledge available, the incredible services they provide to nature and to humans, and so on.
- Did you have a mentor or influential professor?
Well yes, several. In Mexico Bernardo Villa, the dean of Mexican Mammalogy was crucial because he is the one who called me home when I was 13 appearing on tv. Then William Lopez Forment, another professor in the department, took me to the field for several years and I learned tons from him. Then in my PhD work John Eisenberg was my key mentor to round out my ideas and future.
- What do you find are the most-commonly held prejudices against bats?
Usually bats are accused of being filthy, bearers of disease, blood-thirsty, aggressive, and flying rats. None of that is true.
- Over the years of your career, have you seen more acceptance of bats by the general public?
I am very glad to tell you that when we started working on a nationwide environmental education program, more than 30 years ago, we were the only ones responding whenever there were news (false) about bats attacking people or bats causing this or that problem in any type of media. Today, not only are we not the only ones, we are NEVER the first ones to react. I cannot claim the sole credit of that shift in the bats´ image, but it is clear today that it has improved significantly. We have a lot of work to do still, but there is significant progress.
- Can you tell us of an interesting field experience?
Lots. Once I was setting mist nets in the middle of the forest and checking them every 15 minutes, only to find more and more holes in the net and no bats. Finally I shut down my headlamp and sat down right next to the net, and soon I detected that a bat had hit the net. As I stood up to get it, another, humongous bat, the false vampire bat, Vampyrum spectrum, landed on the net and proceeded to kill and remove the smaller bat from the net. Hence the mysterious missing bats and appearing holes.
- Is there a species of bat that you would consider your favorite?
For obvious reasons, the false vampire bat, Vampyrum spectrum. I video recorded one of these consuming another bat and put it in my YouTube channel here: it is truly tremendous, powerful, strong:
[FYI, this video is not for the squeamish among you, but it is very badass!]
- Let’s say you are in your favorite place in Mexico for mist netting bats. What species would cause you the most excitement if it were captured and which one would be a concern (maybe it’s hard to handle or has a reputation for biting, etc.)?
Pretty much, the first bats always cause the same level of excitement, no matter what. I get a kick out of getting bats out of nets or harp traps or whatever, that could be comparable to a high. I am often asked how can I keep going after 10-15 days of very little sleep, hard work, mosquitos, rain, heat, etc. Just setting mist nets each night is like an energy shot, and I just keep going. Obviously Vampyrum would be the bat that would cause the most excitement, but of course if I catch a new record for the country, or a species I have not seen before, or one that I have only seen once or twice, or one that is the current focus of one of my projects, I will be equally excited. Part of the excitement comes from seeing the reactions of young students when they see their first phyllostomine, their first Thyroptera, their first tent-making bat, even their first Artibeus!! This last one is famous among bat biologists because it is large, feisty, powerful, and I don´t know of any bat biologist working in the Neotropics who has not been bitten by an Artibeus. I enjoy them a lot. I like to feel their strength in my hand, I like the challenge of taking them out f the net while paying close attention to their teeth and even their thumbs that can pierce the skin with the claw.
- White nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the past decade or so. What’s the current state of the disease and the efforts to combat it?
WNS is one of the most devastating wildlife diseases in history. There is a little bit of hope because it is known to have come from Europe and the vast majority of European bats are resistant to the disease today. i.e., they suffer from it but do not die. Resistance is beginning to emerge in some populations in the United States. There were some news earlier this year in which some bat biologists hinted that they had found a “cure” for WNS. Unfortunately they have been unable to provide any evidence to that, so until they do, I remain skeptical. Another major threat to bats in North America is the unmitigated wind energy farms. Wind turbines are killing as many as 800,000 bats each year. This is likely to deplete bat populations along the main migratory routes if unmitigated. I wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times last year:
- In a 2010 book review, you lamented the lack of native-born experts in carnivore conservation in Africa and Latin America. Do you see that changing in Mexico?
I am very glad to tell you that it is changing. Latin America is emerging as a giant in terms of conservation science and policy. There is much to do still in Africa and other tropical areas, but progress is evident with lot of groups sprouting and working effectively for the conservation of carnivores and all biodiversity. Today we have the Latin American Network for the Conservation of Bats, the RedFEL, Latin American Network for the Conservation of Jaguars and other felines, and many others. It is now time to build a network of networks, a sort of south-south cross-pollination, if you will.
- You were recently featured in a BBC documentary. What was that like?
Well to put it bluntly, it was a dream come true. It is the dream of many conservation professionals to convey their message through effective vehicles such as the BBC. If, on top of that, you have Sir David Attenborough telling the story, then the message is even more effective in conveying your ideas and to urge people to join the conservation forces. So no exaggeration there, it was (and still is) a dream come true. The documentary (The Bat Man of Mexico) has won several highly coveted awards and is close to airing in the Americas, having aired last year across Europe and Oceania.
- You have won the Whitley Award and the Rolex Award for Enterprise. What did that recognition mean to you and your work?
Those and other awards I have received, such as Mexico´s National Nature Conservation Award from President Fox and the VW Award for Love of the Planet is a wonderful way of catapulting and strengthening your work, making it a lot more visible to many more people, and at the same time increasing your ability to do more work, given the resources provided. But awards such as those are also a very strong motivation to outdo yourself, to redouble your efforts and go even further in your work. These awards bring the spotlight on to you, and then the public, your peers, your friends, your family, even your enemies will pay even closer attention to see what you do now that you have “succeeded”. So each award serves the purpose, (to me), of a prod, or an incentive, to push harder, to try stronger, to reinvent yourself, to expand even more your work.
- You are mostly known for your work with bats, but you have published articles on jaguars, ocelots and bighorn sheep. Can you discuss this work a bit, especially jaguars?
A country like Mexico, fifth in the world in terms of its biodiversity, and still a developing country, cannot afford to have people so specialized as to work only on the biology of a species or a group of species. This is one of the first lessons my students receive. We have to diversify, to expand our comfort zone, to increase our positive influence. There are clearly not enough conservation professionals in Mexico to face so many challenges as we have. So I have diversified correspondingly and am very glad to report that we have made progress on every front. There are more bighorn in Mexico today than there were 20 years ago when I started working with them. We created a sustainable harvest program to benefit a local indigenous group in the largest island of Mexico, Tiburon in the Gulf of California, a program that has become a model for other similar programs. We reintroduced them into states where they had been extirpated such as Coahuila and Chihuahua. And more. In jaguars, my group, colleagues and I have brought Mexico to the forefront at the world level in terms of knowledge about jaguars. Today there is no other country that knows more about jaguars than Mexico, and this was all achieved by Mexicans leading the entire effort. Today Mexico has a National Jaguar Conservation Strategy, a National Jaguar Census, a Jaguar cattle insurance program, and many other initiatives.
- What are the future questions you want to work on?
Much of my work today is focused on influencing policy at the national and international level. I am convinced that the time has come for scientists to begin playing front and center roles, working hand in hand with policy makers in the context of national governments and international agreements such as CITES (I was ViceChair of the Animals Committee for ten years and remain representative of Mexico before CITES), CBD, CMS, RAMSAR, IPBES, and more. As far as locally, we are actively working uncovering new information on conservation needs of jaguars such as corridors connecting the most important populations, countering the most important threats, using taste aversion to control cattle predation, and more. I am working today on uncovering the key questions driving migration in nectar bats and mother-pup recognition in colonies of hundreds of thousands. I am working on the largest species of bat in the New World, the false vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum) to understand their basic biology, their conservation needs, behavioral ecology, social biology, and more. I will never run out of questions. If anything the more I uncover, the more questions I have!
- Do you have any suggestions for people who want to help conserve bats?
Sure: 1) Get informed and spread the words through friends and family. 2) Get involved in working with your local energy company to make sure that they adopt bat-friendly wind energy generation policies. 3) Learn about white nose syndrome and contribute to the research being done to solve the problem. 4) Put up a bat house. An easy, family friendly activity that is sure to bring learning opportunities, enjoyment, and help bats in the process. 5) learn about the bat friendly tequila and mezcal, another one of my initiatives that is helping nectar bats across Mexico and helping tequila in the process. Visit:
- Do you have any advice for young biologists wanting to get into your line of work?
YES! Follow your dreams! Never falter, take no prisoners. Your passion is your drive and you warranty for success. Push as hard as you can, expand your networks, broaden your comfort zone, think outside the box. You will thank yourself 5, 10 years down the line.
- Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Everyone has something to do to help biological diversity. It is not only altruism. It is for YOU. For your quality of life, for your comfort. From food to energy to clothes to climate, you owe it to biological diversity. It is time to get engaged in the battle to save it and restore it and guarantee it for future generations. Lots to do here, from revisiting your consumption habits, your energy use, your diet, your fuel consumption, to seriously think about your contributions to local, regional, national, international conservation initiatives. For too long nature has subsidized our habits of living. It is high time to pay back.