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HomeLifeBats in the Caribbean - Part II

Bats in the Caribbean – Part II

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Mocka Jumbies and Rum...

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Although we know from fossil evidence that the bat has existed for about 50 million years, there is a charming Ojibwe legend about how the bat came to be.

Early one morning, as Sun was awakening to rise in the sky, he fell into a forest of very tall trees. After searching in vain across the forest floor, the animals gave up looking for him, resigned to live forever in darkness. Just then a brave, small, brown squirrel volunteered to climb into the forest canopy to search for Sun and there squirrel found him, tangled in branches and dimming with exhaustion from his fight to free himself.

Sun pleaded with squirrel to help him. Squirrel began chewing through the branches, becoming hotter and hotter as his fur and tail burned away while Sun’s light became stronger as each capturing branch fell away. Squirrel was determined and continued to chew, finally freeing Sun at great cost to himself, for squirrel had lost his sight, his tail, and his lovely brown fur in Sun’s fiery heat.

But Sun, being so very grateful, bestowed upon squirrel the ability to fly like the birds, see better than the other animals in the forest, and have fur so soft that it was beyond description. Sun turned squirrel into a bat; a flying mammal.

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Of the 900 plus species of bats in the world, the Caribbean holds a very interesting species of bat, the Bull Dog bat also known as the Fishing Bat. Belonging to the order Chiroptera or “hand wing”, bats have the same number of bones in their hand-like wings as does the human hand. The ‘thumb’ in all bats is a small hook used for hanging from branches or clinging to rock walls.

The Bull Dog bat is unique in that the ends of the wing bones have evolved into extended talon-like claws, similar to those of eagles, which the bat uses to snatch fish as it flies over the water’s surface. Contrary to the Ojibwe legend and much centuries old disinformation, bats are not blind; however, their powers of echolocation guide them more so than their sight.

The Bull Dog bat, earning that name by reminding early scientists of their canine bull dogs at home, has an exceptionally sophisticated echolocation ability often compared to that of dolphins. Coming out of their roosts as the sun sets, Bull Dog bats have shown that they can echolocate a fish fin that breaks the surface no more than 1/16th of an inch.

The bats then swoop in to gaff fish up to 4-5” in length and as they fly away they move the fish into their mouths with hand-like wings. They also demonstrate an ability to ‘remember’ a particularly fertile fishing ground where, instead of echolocating, they simply skim the surface as they probe the water with their claws and impale their prey.

While most bats cannot take off from a flat surface, having to climb into a hanging position to launch themselves, the Bull Dog bats can land on water and swim across the surface using their wings as paddles. Fishermen throughout the Caribbean islands have reported seeing Bull Dog bats floating amongst flocks of pelicans in the evening, waiting for schools of bait fish and minnows to move toward the surface from the depths. The people on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda honored their population of Bull Dog fishing bats with a postage stamp.

Adult Bull Dog bats have bodies approximately 5 inches in length with wingspans of 20 inches. Their faces are furless with a pointed muzzle, hair lipped mouths, and tube-like noses that extend slightly beyond the mouth. Upon catching a fish, they chew it with teeth powerful enough to crush bone and then store the masticated fish in elastic cheek pouches, continuing to fish until dawn when they return to their roosts.

They roost in caves, rocky crevices, and hollow trees near sea shores, rivers, and lakes but rarely amongst human habitats unlike other bat species. Bachelor males roost separately from females who remain with their same female companions for years. Although there is some variation depending on the availability of food and weather, Bull Dog bats generally mate in the Fall, delivering one pup per year after a two month gestation. The pup is cared for by both parents until it reaches adulthood and can fly at the age of about one month.

While there are no solid statistics on Bull Dog bat populations, what we do know is that all bats, and particularly the Bull Dog bats, are under great pressure from human encroachment. As more and more people move to our shores, the Bull Dog bats’ habitat is being destroyed. Caves are sealed over or are
disturbed by human intrusion. Crevices are filled in to create buildable lots for homes and resorts. Trees are cut down as land is cleared. Water is polluted and reefs are destroyed causing fish to die or move elsewhere and the bats are disappearing for lack of habitable territory and food. And, although it was once common to see the fishing bats, it has now become a rare and extraordinary sight.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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