Q&A: Curator Nancy Simmons on Her New Bat Book

by AMNH on


Mammalogist Nancy Simmons has many stories about bats—she’s been studying these nocturnal fliers for decades. Now she’s sharing a few of the best in a new book, Bats: A World of Science and Mystery, published this January by University of Chicago Press. 

Dr. Simmons, who’ll be giving a talk at the Museum on Saturday, March 14, with her co-author and fellow bat researcher Brock Fenton, recently answered a few questions.

Lesser Mouse-Tailed bat flies into a cave.
A Lesser Mouse-Tailed bat, seen here echolocating.
© University of Chicago Press

What got you started studying bats?

They’re just really interesting! As an evolutionary biologist, I wanted to work on a group of animals with interesting anatomies and behaviors, a fossil record, and which live in a wide variety of environments. I started working with bats when I came to the Museum in the late 1980s as a postdoctoral researcher, and I’ve continued ever since.

What was the writing process like for you and your co-author, Brock Fenton, a bat researcher and professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada?

Since I’m an evolutionary biologist and Brock is an ecologist, we brought different sets of expertise to the table. We each run across interesting papers and new pieces of research in our respective fields, and we were sharing those back and forth constantly. “Oh, have you seen this?” “No, but you should take a look at that!” It turned into a contest of sorts, seeing how many different ways we could find to bring all this science to life.

Eidolon helvum
The Straw-Colored Fruit Bat will gather in colonies of up to a million bats.
© University of Chicago Press

How has the field changed since you first began studying bats?

Because of advances in technology and new fossil finds, we’ve learned a lot more about bat evolution and biology in the last decade or so. We have more sophisticated tools for understanding the echolocation they use to find their way, and that helps us get a better idea of what bats do at night. We’ve also gotten more effective at tracking them. When I started working with bats, the tracking collars weighed more than the animals did. Now we have tiny tracking devices that work much better.

Tiny bat with wings spread.
Native to Asia, the tiny and colorful painted bat weighs in at an average of just five grams.
© University of Chicago Press

What kind of audience did you have in mind for the book?

We had two sorts of folks in mind. The first are people who are not scientists, but are educated and widely read and just interested in bats. So on one hand, I’d like for my neighbors to be able to pick this book up and understand what I do.

We also wanted it to be a really good primer on bats—something we could hand to say, an undergraduate intern that would get them up to speed on the field quickly. People who have a particular question about bats—like how to get them out of their chimney—often turn to the Internet for an answer. But if you want to become really knowledgeable about a topic, a book like this can help make that happen.

The thing we want to get across is that there are stories behind every study, every picture, every new thing we learn. Thinking about those stories can help make the science more personal and relatable. 

A Jamaican fruit bat, Artibeus jamaicensis, a species of leaf-nosed bats with a leaflike protrusion on their snouts, brownish fur and pale white markings above and below the eyes.
The Jamaican Fruit Bat will eat lots of kinds of fruit, but is especially partial to figs.
© University of Chicago Press

Not to make you pick a favorite kid, but are there species of bats that have a special place in your heart? 

I’m very fond of larger, carnivorous species like the spectral bat (Vampyrum spectrum) which hunts birds and mice, and also of very small bats, like the bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) which weighs in at just a couple of grams and is no bigger than the tip of your thumb—it’s amazing that a bat can be that tiny!

My favorite family is the New World leaf-nosed bats (Phyllostomidae). This family has an amazing level of ecologic diversity and is represented by all kinds of bats, large and small, fruit eaters and carnivores, vampire bats and bats that eat nectar and pollen. 

A bat, the common vampire bat, with wings fully expanded, flying out of a cave. The bat is flying toward camera, with cave opening in the background.
The common vampire bat is one of many in the diverse family of New World leaf-nosed bats.
© University of Chicago Press

You and your co-author, Brock Fenton, will be discussing and signing the book at the Museum on Saturday, March 14. What can people expect at the event? 

Brock and I will be interviewing one another and telling some stories about the work we’ve done in the field. It will be a conversation, not a lecture, where we get to share some of the cool things we’ve learned about bats in our careers—and there are a lot of those.

Buy tickets to the event here.