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Bat Plays Important Culture Role


Lesser long-nosed Bat Plays Important Role in Tohono O'odham Culture

Lesser long-nosed Bat
One of the most iconic images in BCI's photo collection is that of a lesser long-nosed bat hovering over the blossom of a saguaro cactus. This was the inspiration for the artist chosen by the US Postal Service to depict a bat for the series of Pollinator Stamps in 2007.

The range of the lesser long-nosed bat is primarily in northern Mexico, extending only as far north as southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The species is listed as endangered in the United States. It feeds on the fruit and nectar of night-blooming cacti such as saguaro and organ pipe, as well as many species of agave.

Like the lesser long-nosed bats, the saguaro’s range is almost completely limited to southern Arizona and western Sonora, with its greatest abundance in the Arizona Uplands. Saguaros do not begin to bloom until they are 50 to 60 years old (and approaching eight feet in height), and then each plant blooms for only one night. Clusters of white flowers bloom near the ends of branches in May and June. Each short-lived flower opens fully by midnight and invites long-nosed bats with a striking aroma. The bats are well-adapted for this nectar source, with long faces suited to the work. As they feed, pollen accumulates on their faces and fur to be carried to hundreds of other flowers before daylight. By midday, the flower closes forever, and, if pollination has occurred, a small fruit will begin to grow at the base of the flower.

Saguaro HarvestThe iconic saguaros are the tie that binds the lesser long-nosed bats to Native Americans throughout the history of the region.

Archeological evidence indicates that the Tucson Basin Hohokam used the saguaro routinely. The strong, woody ribs were gathered to build the framework for the walls of their homes. And they supplemented their agricultural diet by cooking saguaro fruit down into syrup and making cakes from the dried seed.

The Hohokam were present in the area from 1 BC to about 1400 AD and is thought to be the ancestors of the still-present Papago, Pima and O'odham nations. 

Historically, the O'odham inhabited an enormous area, extending south to Sonora, Mexico, north to Central Arizona, west to the Gulf of California, and east to the San Pedro River. This was known as the Papagueria, and it had been home to the O'odham for thousands of years. Today, the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona lives along the U.S./Mexico border. Its  tribal lands, established in 1874, consist of a three parcels totaling 2,854,881 acres (approximately 4,500 square miles) in the Sonoran Desert of south-central Arizona and into Mexico – an area roughly the size of Connecticut with a population of 27,500 members.

The health of the saguaro, dependent on the health of the bats, is still critical to these tribal nations. The saguaro plays a major role in the life of tribal members, who still collect the fruit to make wine for ceremonial purposes. Several botanical, ethnobotanical and phytochemical studies been made on the cactus, which is the State Flower of Arizona.

Ha:sañ is the O'odham word for saguaro cactus. Ha:sañ Bak means "the saguaro is ready." Ha:sañ Bak signals the beginning of the rainmaking ceremony. Before harvesting the first fruits, Tohono O'odham bless themselves with the saguaro, using a fallen fruit. The fruit is touched to the body near the heart. The fruit picker asks for a clear mind and a good heart before going out into the desert.

Saguaro ribs are used for poles called kukuipad. The ribs are collected in April and May and saved from year to year. A cross bar made of segai (greasewood) is tied at a 45 degree angle near the top of the pole. The completed poles are tied to a tree while they await the harvest.

Saguaro fruits are called bahidaj. When ripe, the fruit opens to expose a sweet red meat and hundreds of tiny black seeds. Harvesters knock or pull the fruits off the tops of the tall saguaros. The Tohono O'odham place the first fruit on the ground with the red side facing the sun after the meat of the bahidai is removed. This signifies that the sun will draw moisture from the fruit into the sky to make the clouds and the rain.

Each of the shiny black seeds within the saguaro fruit is no bigger that a pinhead. A mature saguaro produces tens of thousands of seeds in a year, and as many as 40 million in a lifetime of 175 to 200 years.

Bahidaj are a very healthy food that's high in soluble fiber and Vitamin C. They contain about 10% protein and 70% carbohydrates. The seeds are 30% fat. A serving of five saguaro fruits contains four grams of protein, five grams of fat and 167 calories. Syrup can be made by boiling the pulp, straining the juice, then boiling again. The seeds can be dried and saved for a winter food or ground into flour.

Saguaro National Monument has a saguaro harvesting program led by tribal members from Tohono O’odham. The Tohono O’odham make saguaro wine, jams and jellies with each year's harvest.

Saguaro jelly has only two ingredients: saguaro fruit pulp and water. Do not add sugar. Put the pulp in a pot and add water until half the pulp is covered. Soak the pulp for an hour and a half, stirring every now and then. Put the pot over a low flame and cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Separate the pulp from the liquid, saving the pulp. Boil the liquid very slowly (stirring all the time) until it turns into a syrup. Then mash the pulp and put through a strainer to remove the seeds. Combine the remaining pulp with the syrup until the mixture has the consistency of jam. When it sets like jam, it is finished. Serve over warm fry bread.

The Tohono O’odham recognize the relationship of the bats to the saguaro. The best evidence is in their crafts. Basket-making using willow, devil’s claw, yucca, and horsehair is a long-honored tradition of the Tohono O'odham. Included among the most sought-after basket patterns, such as “man in the maze,” turtle-back designs, coyote tracks, squash blossoms and dust-devils, are saguaro fruit-picking scenes — and representations of bats.

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 November 2013
 
Unless otherwise noted, all images are copyright ©Merlin D. Tuttle and/or ©Bat Conservation International