When I say bats, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it disease? Vampires? Halloween? Maybe its my personal favorite – Batman! While Batman may not have been created with actual bats in mind, the two do actually share a few common characteristics. Let’s think about it for a second…Batman is a superhero that fights crime by night and protects people from harm. Similarly, our nocturnal bat friends take flight at night and lend a hand to humans by acting as seed dispersers, pollinators, and some species of bats even act as a form of natural pest control, protecting us from insects like mosquitoes. Bats are in their own unique league of superheroes, and thanks to your visit to the zoo, we are excited to announce that we will be providing support to a new project to help save straw-colored fruit bats in Rwanda!
Led by Houston Zoo partner Dr. Olivier Nsengimana, this project will be an addition to his team’s work with endangered grey crowned cranes in Rwanda. After having worked as a Gorilla Doctor, Dr. Olivier saw a need to protect lesser-known species in his country and as a result started the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA). Adding African straw-colored fruit bats as the next species to work with was a natural choice, as the Central African region, including Rwanda, is known to be home to about 60% of all Africa’s bat species, yet they are the least studied in comparison to other mammals. So what do we know about the straw-colored fruit bat? First, it got its name from the yellowish or straw colored fur on its body. This species can reach a length of 5-9 inches and has a wingspan that can reach a length of up to 2.5 feet – a size that earns it the title of mega-bat. They are very strong fliers, and each year in November, over 8 million straw-colored fruit bats migrate to Zambia (similar to the distance from Houston to Tallahassee, Florida), forming the largest mammal migration in the world!
Despite what we do know about bats being important pollinators and consumers of pest insects, they are typically ignored or feared by many people which can lead to conflict that threatens bat numbers. In Africa, bats face challenges due to conflict with fruit growers, habitat loss, and being hunted for food. Occasionally, bats will roost (rest in their upside down hanging position) inside of homes and buildings which unfortunately further damages their reputation as they are thought to be involved in the transmission of infectious diseases. In reality, little is known about if and how bats actually transmit diseases to humans. Dr. Olivier and his team will be working to track bat population numbers and their movements, which will help to provide a greater understanding of how bats come into contact with humans, and how frequently this occurs. Knowing this information will add another dimension to the research being done on bats as pathogen (bacterium or virus that causes disease) carriers and transmitters – the more we know about bat behavior, the more we can learn about how coming into contact with them affects us.
Marie Claire Dusabe has recently assumed the position of Bat Project Coordinator for the RWCA, and will be helping with work that will establish the important role this species plays in Rwanda’s ecosystem. By generating new knowledge and providing community outreach, the team hopes to change the public perception of bats in Rwanda, with the long-term goal of protecting this species and its habitat. Animals have certainly been inspiration for folklore, tales, and fears, and our straw-colored fruit bat friends are a prime example of a misunderstood species. We are excited to see what great work the RWCA team is able to accomplish, and we thank each and every one of you for your continued support of projects like this one through your visit to the zoo. On your next trip, don’t forget to drop by and visit our own colony of fruit bats in the Carruth Natural Encounters building!