Thursday, 11 May 2017

Hanging on: In search of the bat that returned from the dead

11 May 2017

By Oliver Wearn

In the pitch dark, the beam of a head torch illuminates hundreds of bats encircling a silhouetted figure in front of us. It’s Jose, telling us he’s spotted the species we have travelled thousands of miles to a remote underground cave in western Cuba to find – the Cuban greater funnel-eared bat.

We move deeper into the cave, treading carefully. Dozens of Cuban boas – some of them 3 meters long – lie strewn across the lunar-like floor. Giant crabs, centipedes and tarantulas scuttle back into their burrows. The wildlife down here is well fed – some of it feasting on guano and unfortunate newborn bats that lose their grip.

There are 13 species of bat in this cave – but the greater funnel-eared bat (Natalus primus) is special. Seen only as fossils, the species was thought to be extinct. In 1992, it came back from the dead.

Two Cuban scientists stumbled on an apparently sizeable population of the species in a remote cave in western Cuba, nicknamed Cueva la Barca (“the boat cave”). The cave is a crucial habitat as it provides the humid and hot conditions – 40°C in the deepest chamber – that some bat species seem to require for breeding. It might just be the most important cave for bat conservation in the Caribbean.

Our hearts race as we spot our first N. primus. Several dozen individuals fly up and down the sinuous cave walls. Its leisurely, aerobatic flight pattern suggests the species makes its living in a very different way from the other bats in this cave. It may be adapted to forage in the dense, tangled understorey of the surrounding forest.

N. primus is evolutionarily unique. The species is a top priority species for ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme. The Natalid family of bats have been evolving in isolation from other bats for around 50 million years, so they represent a disproportionately large share of mammalian evolutionary history.


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