Shelf Life 14: Into the Island of Bats
ANGELO SOTO-CENTENO: As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, I was always running around in the field and catching snakes and lizards. But I really was in love with animals that could fly.
Bats are super special because in the Caribbean there’s only a handful of native mammals remaining, and of all those groups, bats are always the most species rich. And that makes them really unique because we can use bats as a tool, or as a model to study how changes in mammal communities have happened over time.
My name is Angelo Soto-Centeno and I am a research associate at the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History.
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ANA LUZ PORZECANSKI: If you want to understand how species have evolved over time around the whole Caribbean, Cuba’s like a key piece of the puzzle. The main island is really much larger than any other island in the Caribbean. And that means that it has more of a diversity of environments.
Organisms are able to arrive into the island and then they’re isolated for long periods of time. And that allows evolution to proceed in new and unpredictable ways.
I’m Ana Luz Porzecanski, Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.
The Museum has been collaborating with Cuban scientists from different institutions for over 100 years. Some of our specimens were collected by renowned Cuban naturalist Juan Gundlach, and date from before the Museum was founded.
The Museum collections hold many Cuban specimens. For example, Megalocnus rodens – the giant ground sloth that used to live in Cuba – as well as jade, invertebrates, fish, herps, and bats.
SOTO-CENTENO: For my research, I’m interested in bat biodiversity and causes of extinctions of bats in the Caribbean. Professionally, Cuba was very exciting for me because I’ve worked in the Caribbean for many years, and Cuba was the only island that I hadn’t visited. And yet, this island is so important to really understand the patterns of distributions that we have across these bats in the Caribbean.
PORZECANSKI: The Explore21 expedition to Cuba wanted to explore an area that hadn’t been explored very often in the last few decades. And we brought together scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, the Cuban National Museum of Natural History, and Humboldt National Park, focusing on what can we document and detect in these forests, and how does this compare to what has been registered there before.
SOTO-CENTENO: I know the biodiversity of Cuba pretty well from books, but never have seen a true Cuban bat in my hand. So, that was really amazing.
We would go out in the afternoon, and we searched for good sites in which we’re going to put our nets. Try to go to sleep for a couple hours, because at 4:30 in the morning, I gotta wake up and go check the harp trap, take out the bats that, you know, have been caught by this trap overnight. And then, you know, I start collecting all the data that I need.
Wing punching —it’s a pretty interesting technique that allow us to sample a small piece of bat tissue to use for genetic analysis. And then the bat is released and it goes home with a tiny, small hole. But it grows back within two, weeks, three weeks or something like that.
Personally, Cuba was also very rewarding because I got to work with Gilberto Silva. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest mammalogists in the Caribbean. He’s been studying bats since the ‘40s, and working with scientists at the American Museum since the 1950s.
PORZECANSKI: Dr. Gilberto Silva Taboada has been a remarkable advocate and force for science in Cuba. He was the one who came up with the idea, and really helped formalize the first national museum of natural history in Cuba. And of course, he has also promoted conservation of many species.
GILBERTO SILVA TABOADA [subtitled]: At the beginning of the 1940s, I joined the Speleological Society of Cuba, which as you know, focuses on the study of caves. There I started coming across bats for the first time. I thought, “I have to study these critters. I’ll have to see what I have to do in my life to study this.”
SOTO-CENTENO: After our expedition Silva visited us at the mammalogy collections, here in New York City
SOTO-CENTENO [subtitled]: Now look at this little skull. I have a very well preserved cranium here and we can compare them with the ones that are in the collection.
SILVA: But is this a fossil?
SOTO-CENTENO [subtitled]: Yes, it is a subfossil. It’s only about 1000 years old. It’s almost from yesterday!
SOTO-CENTENO: For my research in the Caribbean, I also look at fossils. For the most part the fossils that we search for are species that we have today. Once we collect all the fossil information, we can plot it on a map. And see the past distribution of a species
SOTO-CENTENO [subtitled]: Part of my research program is to compare the past with the present to have a clear image of how communities have changed over time. And in Cuba that would be very cool.
SILVA [subtitled]: Of course!
SOTO-CENTENO: Using climate models, fossil data, and the genetics will help us put together a whole big story about how climate change itself in the past probably affected bats in the Caribbean.
So far, we’ve only been able to put half of a story, right. Now, with this new information that we get from Cuba we have specimens, evidence at a particular place and time that allow us to make comparisons not only in present day, but also towards the past
PORZECANSKI: Every specimen that we have is really valuable. And that’s why also we welcome so many scientists, including Cuban scientists, to come and study our collections.
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“We have evidence at a particular place and time that allows us to make comparisons not only in present day, but also with the past.”
- J. Angelo Soto-Centeno Research Associate, Division of Vertebrate Zoology
The island of Cuba is a key piece of the puzzle for two bat researchers trying to understand biodiversity in the Caribbean. Find out why on an expedition with mammalogists J. Angelo Soto-Centeno and Gilberto Silva Taboada, joined by Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.
How can revisiting sites each year help conserve wildlife? Find out in Count on It.