One in a million: Last-minute Bolivian bat netting yields a brand new big-eared bat

Notwithstanding the horrible tragedy of the Columbine (Colorado) incident, April 1999 was by far one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Not even a week prior to leaving, I was preparing to give final exams for courses I was teaching at the time. I was about halfway through creating an exam when I received a phone call from a former student, who sounded a bit short-winded and stressed out.

As I asked him to slow down, he explained that the environmental consulting company he worked for was between a rock and a hard place, and had to redo a series of environmental impact statements — this time using biologists experienced in the area. I immediately dismissed myself as a candidate, explaining that I had final exams to give soon, and then I was off to my site in the Peruvian Amazon where I would lead a natural history tour, followed by field work (my usual grind this time of year).

It was at this point during the conversation that some things were pointed out to me that made it difficult to say no — namely the incredible opportunity to work in one of the least explored areas in the neotropics, my specialty region of focus.

This map depicts the country of Bolivia with Chiquitano forest (light shading) extending east into Brazil, as well as Cerrado (dark shading). The dots represent the general region we worked in (map produced by K. Koy).

This map depicts the country of Bolivia with Chiquitano forest (light shading) extending east into Brazil, as well as Cerrado forest (dark shading). The dots represent the general region we worked in. (Map produced by K. Koy.)

Less than 50 hours after that life-changing phone call, I had convinced co-workers to give my finals and cover the tour in Peru for me, left my keys with someone to house-sit, and was on the red-eye to Santa Cruz, Bolivia! Also during that time, I quickly helped hire a science staff of about 30 biologists (mostly Bolivian, some ex-pats, and a couple of Argentines) to undertake a Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) of the eastern Bolivian panhandle.

Things were very busy indeed.

The politics of the situation were gruesome, and I was ecstatic when I was finally granted permission to just begin getting people into the field to do our work. A botanist from Spain was responsible for forestry, plant community and hydrology crews, while I worked with the vertebrate zoology crews (birds, fish, herps, two mammal crews). Wanting to become involved “on the ground,” I joined up with the mammal crew and we got ourselves situated at the base camp, Las Conchas.

Julieta Vargas and Hugo Aranibar, young mammalogists from the Colección Boliviana de Fauna (National Museum in La Paz), José Manuel Rojas (also a mammalogist) from the Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado (in Santa Cruz), a couple of others, and myself comprised the mammal teams. Although they were allowed to leave a full day before me (via four-wheel drive vehicles) while I was stuck in administrative hell in Santa Cruz — my helicopter ride to Las Conchas more than a day later actually landed me at the remote field site half a day before their arrival.

After resting up the first night, we were ready to hit the field! The only problem was inclement weather that prevented helicopter flight to some of our target areas. After several hours we became bored with no entertainment, save a deck of cards. So we decided to inventory the region around the base camp.

On the evening of April 17, Julieta, Hugo and José Manuel snuck off to do some bat netting. Any seasoned bat netter knows that nets need to be monumented in a long continuous linear run, sometimes with a T-head on the end, but always surrounding a resource (e.g., a fruiting tree, a light luring in many insects, over water, etc).

Well, by the time I was able to cut loose of my meeting and catch up with them, I found that they erected only a single mist net in the middle of a small patch of savannah surrounded by patches of Cerrado forest. To make things even more dismal, it was drizzling and tiny beads of rain clung to the otherwise virtually invisible net. Another thing any seasoned bat netter can tell you is that netting in the rain is a waste of time, because the bats can detect the rain droplets on the net and will thus avoid it.

So I feared our chances of netting any bats that evening were maybe one in a million? Of course I didn’t have the heart to tell Hugo and the others that the netting was gone about all wrong — they were SO EXCITED; how could I possibly rain on their parade?

Nothing short of miraculous, we actually caught a (i.e., ONE) bat that evening. We knew it was a specimen of the genus Micronycteris (big-eared bat), but beyond that I was uncertain — it was very late, very dark, and we were very tired. We collected it and decided to key it out in the morning once recharged.

Photo of holotype of M. yatesi by A. Muñoz, provided by L. Siles.

Photo of holotype of M. yatesi by A. Muñoz, provided by L. Siles.

In the morning and through the rest of the trip, I pored through dichotomous keys, but was unable to assign our little bat to any known species previously reported for the region. Could this be something new? After convincing myself there was no way in hell we’d net a bat that evening, if the ONE that was netted turned out to be something new … that would be pretty cool. I felt a little like I was witnessing the scene in the Peanuts Christmas special when Charlie Brown buys the measly little tree that gives out and all but dies. Then his buddies come and pour some TLC into the tree and make it pretty cool after all.

After returning to the U.S., I went to visit Nancy Simmons, a Micronycteris specialist, at the American Museum of Natural History to see if she was able to designate the specimen to species level. Simmons suggested it likely represented a new species most closely allied to the Micronycteris sanborni group.

So I put out the word to other bat scientists working in Bolivia to be on the lookout for this unique little bat. After several years, we were finally able to find someone else who netted some of the unique little bats, Liz Siles.

Many years and much work later, we were finally able to describe the new species fully in a recent article in the Journal of Mammalogy. After some discussion, we decided to name this species “Yates’ big-eared bat (Micronycteris yatesi),” after our late colleague Terry Yates of the University of New Mexico and the National Science Foundation.

The etymology reads, “This species is named in honor of Terry Lamon Yates (1950–2007) for his pivotal contributions to the knowledge of Bolivian mammals, training Bolivian biologists, and starting collaborations that strengthened mammalian research and shaped current science and field biology in Bolivia.”

Since the big-eared bat find in Bolivia, it is really spectacular to see how far the main players have come. Julieta, Hugo and José Manuel were fairly young and green mammalogists at the time; today they have their own career trajectories. Julieta ultimately became Curator of Mammals at the National Museum in La Paz. Hugo went on to direct a program for the highly endangered Wattled Curassow (Crax globulsa) in Bolivia (read here for an account on this rare species). And my dear hermano boliviano José Manuel became increasingly involved in human sustainable living, now working on these projects in rural Bolivia.

As for myself, it was overwhelming how much I was able to accomplish in my career as a result of this trip. From the REA, I was able to describe two new species of mammals (a rice rat and the bat), got three wonderful mammalogy grad students working in Bolivia, and published some great manuscripts on the birds and mammals of this unique region.

Sometimes life taps you on the shoulder to take a chance. Even though I wasn’t able to administer my own finals or go to my field site in Peru that spring, this one in a million chance of a lifetime was irreplaceable – VERY glad I took the chance to stray off the beaten path.

Working from zero: How exchange programs and scientific sleuthing fuel our Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Our collection focus in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology is dictated by both our exhibits and current areas of research. We are heavily vested in birds and mammals (and herps to a lesser extent) from Texas (yeehaw!), Africa and Latin America, as well as globally threatened/endangered species that transcend political boundaries.

Tightly correlated with this latter category are some of the exotic pheasants — sadly, rare in nature due to their capacity to feed hungry families in otherwise impoverished areas. The majority of the planet’s pheasants come from Asia — although it’s not a continent the collection focuses on per se, the fact that most pheasants are threatened/endangered makes them a targeted focal group for our collection.

However, Asian Bird Flu virus has all but shut down all export of birds from Asia! Consequently, we rely heavily on the captive stocks of zoos and private game breeders to build our synoptic series of pheasants. We have managed to build a respectable collection of most genera and at least 35 different species, although there are still a few species we are lacking, which can only be obtained through exchange programs with other museums. Such exchange programs are difficult to get off the ground for a number of primarily bureaucratic reasons.

Nevertheless, one of the many exciting developments in Vertebrate Zoology this year is a new exchange program with a large museum in the northeast. The Museum provides them with data-rich specimens that we already have represented in our collection, and they, in turn, provide us with study skins to help fill various gaps.

In terms of our current pheasant holdings, we currently have all species but one in the cases of junglefowl (Gallus), and peacock pheasants (Polyplectron), which are very different from peafowl (Pavo), and tragopans (Tragopan). In the latter case, we were fortunate to recently receive a beautiful adult male specimen of the Western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) through the above-mentioned exchange program.

Unfortunately, the specimen arrived with very little information. For example, was it collected from the wild or hatched in captivity? Although this seems trivial, knowing this information can mean the difference between a specimen that is valuable in studies dealing with biogeography and systematics, versus one that is only useful to make drawings from or is just something pretty to look at.  This is where detective work comes in handy (such as the sleuthing highlighted in my blog dealing with Col. Richard Meinertzhagen).

Between the tags on the specimen and data at the bottom of the online catalog, I was able to glean the following information: The specimen was cataloged on Oct. 3, 1908. Either the species or specimen was from northern India, obtained from the private collection of Tristam.

Western Tragopan

First I needed to determine if the specimen was collected from the wild or hatched in captivity. The late Jean Delacour was a fascinating individual who was very interested in a broad array of topics dealing with gamebirds. His family owned a large 14th-century French castle and estate in the quaint town of Cleres (just north of Rouen) which he inherited and used to raise and study exotic gamebirds. Ultimately, he donated the facility in full to the Paris Museum (I was fortunate to visit the Cleres facility for a meeting about 15 years ago).

Delacour was an authority on pheasants and wrote a first edition on these birds in the 1950s that included everything known at the time of its writing, including the status of different species in captivity. Delving into this source, I learned that about 50 Western Tragopans were imported from northern India between 1863-93, mostly to breeders and zoos in France, as well as the London Zoo.  Apparently they were very difficult to raise, but one French aviculturist managed to raise a limited number by the mid 1890s.

However, Delacour then indicates that every single Western Tragopan died out in captivity by 1900 and they were never imported again, so they never reached the U.S. So it seems intuitive that because our new specimen was cataloged in 1908, it would surely have to have been collected from the wild as it was collected eight years after the last Western Tragopan perished in captivity.

Simple enough, right? Not that simple, I’m afraid.

The British Collector Henry Baker Tristam died in 1906. It fits logically that the specimen then made its way to the institution we received it from, where it was cataloged in 1908. It is possible that Tristam had the bird in his possession for a while prior to his death, and it is therefore plausible that the bird could have been one of the captive imports that died out.

However, given that so few were bred in captivity, it is likely that this male was indeed collected in nature — even if it lived in captivity for a spell prior to its death. Reinforcing this, apparently very few, if any, of the birds in Tristam’s specimen collection were raised in captivity.

Have you done any scientific sleuthing lately?

Killer crocs and cute koalas: Going to extremes with Australian wildlife

Australian wildlife is full of surprises. I first discovered that crocodiles look a lot like alligators, but with a very different attitude toward humans. A trip to the museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park often features an encounter with an alligator sunning on your path or floating like a log at the water’s edge in Creekfield Lake. You’re warned to keep dogs on leashes and leave the gator alone, but no fences restrain you or the gator.

Australian crocodiles are more aggressive, and unfortunately recognize humans as food. Fencing confines all the crocodiles at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure near Cairns, Australia. And a boat ride in crocodile-infested waters requires all hands inside the boat with Plexiglas windows on all sides.

CIMG6146An alligator show often features the handler taping the gator’s mouth shut and actually sitting on the patient gator. In contrast, a crocodile show is billed as a “Crocodile Attack Show.” It usually features only one crocodile that must be distracted when the keeper dashes across an open area to the protected spot for the feeding. There’s nothing leisurely about a crocodile jumping for food or initiating a death roll when the food is attached to a rope that the keeper does not release.

CIMG6110After grabbing the bait, we watched a croc rolling under the water, a technique designed to disorient and drown its prey. This “death roll” allows a croc to feast on large animals at its own pace. As the late Steve Irwin said, “The crocodile death roll is potentially the most powerful killing mechanism on Earth.”

CIMG6121Koalas are as cute as crocs are deadly. Koalas are marsupials native to coastal regions of Australia. Like all marsupial babies, baby koalas are called “joeys.” At birth, a koala joey is the size of a jellybean! It has no hair, no ears, and is blind. Joeys crawl into their mother’s pouch immediately after birth and stay there for about six months. At Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure, we petted the soft fur of a female koala and watched an 11-month-old Joey still clinging to its mother’s back. Back in Houston, our only marsupial is the lowly opossum, which just doesn’t compare.

Shark Week turns 25: Our six ways to celebrate

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, guys and gals: Shark Week is back.

After falling deep down the wormhole of the Summer Olympics (or as we like to call it, the Swimmer Olympics), it’s nice to have something else sleek and muscular to watch in the water.

So in honor of this horrific holiday season of sorts, here are six ways to celebrate Shark Week, starting Sunday, August 12:

1. Make a ridiculous watermelon sculpture, and try not to scare the bejeezus out of your kids.

Shark Week 2012

2. Imagine if sharks could fly and never sleep again.

Shark Week 2012

3. Imagine sharks had movie star teeth and feel better.

Shark Week 2012

4. Have mixed emotions about this photo:

Shark Week 2012

5. Be glad this guy’s extinct:

Megalodon Jaws

6. Learn more about the fiercest shark that ever lived and rent Mega Shark Versus CrocosaurusJust kidding — visit our new Hall of Paleontology to see a cast jaw, spectacular paleo art by Julius Csotonyi, and a compelling display of the jaw with the prey it’s poised to consume.

Happy Shark Week!