Big adventure. That's what my husband, Bruce, and I signed up for when we booked our trip along the Amazon with BCI and the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). We weren't members of either organization at the time, nor did we have a burning interest in bats or plants. The wild and scenic Amazon was the draw for us. Luckily, our guides were leading authorities on Neotropical birds, botany, and bats, and were enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge.
We met our team of experts upon arrival in Manaus, 1,000 miles (1,600 km) up the Amazon River. Over the next 10 days, Dr. Scott A. Mori and Carole Gracie from NYBG instructed our group on some of the 50,000 plant species in the Amazon Basin, emphasizing bat-pollinated and bat-dispersed plants. Dr. Mario Cohn-Haft, a 15-year resident of the area with a Ph.D. in Neotropical birds, led our birding adventures. On the bat front, Dr. Merlin Tuttle, BCI's founder, was the Indiana Jones of the expedition. By day he regaled us with stories of his adventures, from wrestling anaconda to living with the Yanomami, the fiercest South American tribe. By night he led a team into the forest to net bats for our evening show and tell. Wilson Uieda, a South American bat expert, helped identify the catch.
Our adventure began as our affable boat captain, Mo, greeted us at the airport and shuttled us to our boats-- the Harpy Eagle for the botanists and the Victoria Amazonica for us bat people. Our floating base was handcrafted with exquisite woodwork and, while compact, included a dining area, bar, mini-library, and staterooms with private baths. The best part about cruising with Mo was being with his big-hearted, hard-working, and ever-helpful crew. The women cheerfully served lavish Brazilian buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while the men navigated outboard-motor boats taking us on shore explorations and sharing our joy when sighting tree boas, tarantulas, toucans, and other wild animals.
With all the available activities there was little time for sleep. The morning wakeup call at 5:30 or so each day varied from classical music to a shout of “There's an anaconda on the boat!” (There really was. Ivan, Mo's skillful snake handler, brought one on board for all to see.) The daily routine featured birding at sunrise and sunset, a plant ecology excursion, presentations by the experts, and the evening bat outing and exposé. We also swam and fished in piranha-infested waters (just try it) and lazed about in the red-hued waterfalls of tributaries.
On our first day, we visited a family along the river to learn how they processed manioc, the primary food source of subsistence river-edge people. The father showed us a bat he killed the night before that he believed was a vampire bat. Indeed, blood was found on the perch of their henhouse confirming the presence of a vampire bat. But the bat they killed was a silver-tipped bat (Myotis albescens), a beneficial species. Merlin explained to the family how just one such bat can catch up to 1,000 or more mosquito-sized insects in a single hour. At a slide show on the boat we learned how important other bats are as pollinators and seed dispersers. Then, we netted Carollia bats carrying Piper fruits and learned how just one small colony of these relatively abundant bats can disperse enough seeds to plant 100,000 or more new tree seedlings each year.
So began my commitment to saving bats. In the afternoons that followed, my batting compadres and I joined Merlin and Steve Walker, BCI's executive director, as they scouted prime locations to net bats for study and release. On our first outing we followed the muddy tracks of a capybara, the world's largest rodent, and set up nets for bats in a flooded forest area. The next night we wended our way to a primary forest area at the end of a long tributary where our netting site was like a scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon (and even included the recently shed skin of an approximately 15-foot-long [4.5 m] anaconda). Back on the boat, we were thrilled by stunning sunsets and starlit skies.
As we set up our mist nets each evening, it was hard to resist checking out the local wildlife. Mo's son, Junior, always on the hunt for frogs, also found a Jesus Christ lizard, aptly named for its ability to run on water, and an inch-long (2 cm-long) lizard, the second smallest in the world. Other sightings included iridescent, blue-winged morpho butterflies mating and a huge but harmless monkey spider that fell on one of our participant's shoulders.
After setting up the nets, we each monitored a section, gently keeping a hand on a main string to detect bats as they became trapped in the net's pockets. Primordial calls of howler monkeys, toucans, and screaming macaws serenaded us as sunset gave way to the melodic night sounds of tree frogs and giant toads. Other nights the air resonated with the high-pitched chiming of Amazonian cicadas, which sounded like alien spacecraft coming in for a landing.
As we waited at our nets, Merlin sometimes whistled like a small frog to lure frog-eating bats, or mimicked katydid or cricket sounds by scraping a comb against a dried leaf to lure round-eared bats. Each time we felt a tug on the net, we'd check it with our headlamps. Sometimes it was just a pesky beetle, and once it was a tapir that panicked and destroyed our net! In a week, we netted 31 of the 100 species of bats in the Amazon Basin.
Spotlighting our way home each night we made even more animal sightings. The first night we watched a glorious light show-- click beetles setting off in bright streaks like flying torches across the sky, spider eyes glowing all around us, and yellow caimans whose eyes shone like candles in the dark.
Back on the Victoria Amazonica, Merlin, Steve, and Wilson would showcase our catch. It was fascinating to learn about each bat's adaptations, such as how vampire bats feed and how fishing bats use their huge feet, flattened toes, and sharp claws to catch fish. The paparazzi photographers on board worked to capture each bat's endearing expression, while Merlin repeatedly demonstrated their gentleness. Once released, they'd never bite. In fact, they often paused to finish the fruit or sugar water we gave them before flying back to their forest.
In our 10 days, we got more than just big adventure. We came to understand many of the amazing interconnections between plants and animals along the Amazon, and certainly got hooked on bats! We now intend to help bats do their work by supporting BCI in its efforts to conserve them and their habitats around the world.