by Irina K. Rakhmatulina
The Caucasus Mountains of Transcaucasia are attractive for researchers because of their unique landscapes, flora and fauna. Located between the Black and Caspian Seas, they are occupied by a particularly diverse fauna of bats, a result of south, east and west faunal migrations. Of the 41 species of bats observed in the USSR, 25 can be found in the small territory of Azerbaijan. Species also found in the Mediterranean and Europe are dominant among them.
The bat fauna southwest of Azerbaijan in the Minor Caucasus Range is especially unusual and diverse. The Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), a species whose preferred habitat includes forest and cultured landscapes, is widespread, as is Kuhl's Pipistrelle (P. kuhli), ordinarily found in deserts or dry and mountainous steppes and almost exclusively inhabiting human dwellings. Other common species are Serontine Bats (Eptesicus serotinus), Greater Horseshoe Bats (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum), Lesser Horseshoe Bats (R. hipposideros), Lesser Mouse-eared Bats (Myotis blythi), and Geoffrey's Bats (M. emarginatus), all of which inhabit caves as well as buildings. Although widely distributed in Azerbaijan, several species of horseshoe bats are severely endangered or extirpated in other parts of Europe.
The geology of the area is unique, and the resultant caves serve as roosts for Mehely's Horseshoe Bats (R. meheyli), Schreiber's Bent-winged Bats (Miniopterus schreibersi), and Lesser Mouse-eared Bats. A colony of about 4,000 Mehely's Horseshoe Bats permanently roosts in Azykh Cave, sharing the cave with more than 10,000 Schreiber's Bent-winged Bats from spring to autumn. The bent-winged bats migrate south to hibernate in a different cave 75 miles away.
Rare species such as Savi's Pipistrelle (P. savi), and the European Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida teniotis) settle in cracks in the rocks.
Most bats in Azerbaijan inhabit human dwellings, forming groups of from several hundred to a thousand bats. They play an important role in controlling both bloodsucking and herbivorous insects. In a single night, the various species of pipistrelles can eat up to 22 pounds of insects in the vicinity of human settlements and the mountain foothills. During the course of the eight months in which they are annually active, they eat over two tons of insects.
Unfortunately, people often don't understand or appreciate the invisible service bats perform for the ecosystem. They therefore must be educated about the role and value of these mammals through lectures and the printed media, with emphasis on the necessity of protecting them. Even so, the bats of our republic live a comparatively safe life. Caves occupied by bats are not objects of tourism or exploration and are under government protection. Most bats inhabiting caves and even buildings also live in comparative safety because access to them is often difficult.
Except in cases where bats intrude into living quarters, people killing bats is unknown. Many species have become companions to man and now live close to humans, frequently encountered by them.
Kuhl's Pipistrelle was rare in the 1930's, but in the past 40 to 50 years has come back to settle all regions of Azerbaijan, as far east as Turkmenia, and north to the Volgograd region. In contrast, the population density of bats has decreased in regions where aerial applications of pesticides have been used for agricultural purposes. However, there is now a tendency toward using natural methods for controlling harmful insects. The help of our friends, the bats, will be useful and indicates why people must be educated about their value and that populations must be preserved.
Dr. Irina K. Rakhmatulina has recently been appointed as the newest member of BCI's Scientific Advisory Board (see BCI Notes, back cover).
A nursery colony of Geoffrey's Bats roosts in an attic.
PHOTO BY IRINA K. RAKHMATULINA