Hernani Oliveira: Neotropic Bats (and what they eat)

Hernani studies bats and their diets, he hopes that by constructing a food-web from their faeces, it can act as a predictor of their conservation status on the IUCN red list. Here he tells us about fieldwork in Costa Rica, home to about 8% of the worlds bat species, and why they’re great species to work with!


Name: Hernani Oliveira

Species: Neotropic Bats

Location: La Selva, Costa Rica

Twitter: @HernaniFMO

Bio: I`m currently doing my PhD in molecular ecology and conservation in Queen Mary University of London. My study focus on comprehending what are the main determinants of bats diet in Central America and how it`s possible to predict the species conservation status based on their diet and food web structure.

Where are you from and what aspect of conservation are you interested in?

I’m Brazilian and my hometown is in the northeast border of the Amazon forest. I was raised surrounded by nature. When I was 14 years old, I moved to the capital (Brasilia) where I lived for another 14 years and discovered a total new environment: the Brazilian Cerrado (savannah). My interest in conservation started in my childhood when I used to watch programs about the conservation and ecology of animals, but it grew stronger when I was doing my undergrad in biology and I had a closer opportunity to study and work with the animals that I used to watch. I ended up working with conservation by following my passion to know more about nature and wildlife in our planet and making my best to try to protect it.

Bats aren’t exactly the most popular conservation icon, how can you get us excited by them?

I work with Neotropical bats. Bats are amazing animals that are distributed all around the world. They are just absent from Antarctica and some islands. They are also full of adaptations for their environments: they can swim, dig, run and fly, of course. They can eat insects, nectar, fruits, vertebrates and even feed on blood. Bats are super important animals for the ecosystem dynamics of tropical environments as they pollinate more than 500 plant species and disperse the seeds of at least 550 plant species. They are also very important insect eaters and help controlling pests in crops. A recent study that has just came out showed that they can save at least one billion dollars every year from controlling pest damage worldwide. Vampire bats can also be considered to be important animals that transmit rabies and help to control the populations of wild mammals.

Your current research is in Costa Rica, can you tell us what it’s like to work there?

Costa Rica is a very important country for conservation. Although it’s small (around 51,100 km2), the different biomes, together with elevation effects, island effects and being in the middle of a corridor between North America and South America boosts its biodiversity. Costa Rica alone hosts around 5% of the world’s biodiversity and 25% of its territory are inside protected areas. Around 8% of world bat species occur there and the country have been strongly affected by the El Nino during the last two years. All these facts together make it a very important country to be studied, understood and protected for the present and future generations.

LEFT: Hernani with a recently caught specimen. RIGHT: Showing that fieldwork isn’t all hard work!
"Although both stations have reasonable good conditions, you often find poisonous snakes, scorpions or wild animals like pumas inside or very close to the rooms."

Your field station is comparatively well equipped, what’s life like there?

I’m working in the dry forests of the Conservation Area of Guanacaste and rainforests of La Selva Biological Station. To get to Guanacaste, you have to take a 4 hours bus to Liberia from the capital, then a 45 minutes bus until the entrance of the park and walk 7 km until the scientific station. To get to La Selva Biological Station, you have to take a two hour bus from the capital (San Jose) to Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui and then a 5 minutes taxi to the park.

Both parks that I’m working have a reasonable good structure to receive researchers. I basically stay in both places in rooms just for myself with fans and a table where I can seat to work. I also have access to the internet and I`m provided with three meals per day.

Although both stations have reasonable good conditions, you often find poisonous snakes, scorpions or wild animals like pumas inside or very close to the rooms.

ABOVE: A few of the creatures that Hernani stumbled upon during his nocturnal fieldwork.
"Although both stations have reasonable good conditions, you often find poisonous snakes, scorpions or wild animals like pumas inside or very close to the rooms."

Lots of people might imagine that working in the rainforest is a dream job. Can you tell us about the highlights and challenges?

I’ve seen a lot of different mammal species at night (ocelots, kinkajous, armadillos, etc.). The most incredible was when I saw pumas twice close to my nets and one of the times it was a youngster carrying an opossum that it had just captured and it came as close as five meters from the nets to check us out and the bats.

I also enjoy a lot having the opportunity to explore and being in different places, knowing the reality and nature of different countries. Networking with different researchers at the stations are also a good way of expanding horizons and learning more about different aspects of research and making good contacts. But there are always some concrete dangers in these places.

You never know when you are going to get bitten by a poisonous snake or find a colony of angry wasps that will chase you and sting you many times. In my case, I usually spend long hours alone in the forest, so I always make sure that someone knows where I am going to be at that night. In other places that I’ve worked, there were always the risk of getting lost in the middle of the forest.

I think it can be specially challenging leaving everything behind and embracing the experience of being in the forest and sometimes working alone at night. If you are not ready to give up the “comfortable life” of the cities, family and friends and embrace being in the forest with mosquitos, snakes, scorpions, pumas and see the beauty out of it, you are definitely not the person for the job!

Also, working with bats can be socially challenging! You mainly work at night, when most of the researchers are sleeping, and then you sleep all day while they’re awake. So, you skip a lot of social activity and human contact in the park. If you are not ready to stay alone for consecutive days and weeks and still feel good about yourself and motivated about your work, the work can be pretty hard!

TOP: A roosting Carollia perspicillata. MIDDLE: An unidentified snake, and the Stone Bridge. BOTTOM: A White-faced capuchin peers down from the trees.

All in all, are you optimistic about the future?

I’m always optimistic! The biggest challenge in my field is that bats are not well admired and liked animals. Even when cute bat photos are shown or you explain the importance of them, people still don’t care about their conservation and existence. It makes conservation efforts to protect them tough, but there has been some good results coming from different parts of the world in educating people and showing them the importance of bats.

Lastly, what advice do you have for anyone looking to get into conservation?

Always talk with locals in your field site! They usually know places, animals and things that have happened lately that you wouldn’t have a clue and this information can be important for you to plan your work or have a good picture of what`s going on around you.

Always keep a curious and open mind! Although some people are pretty good in reading and knowing everything that are in the books, there is a lot going on with nature that have yet to be written. It’s just waiting for an open and clever mind.

Plan well your fieldwork! Although sometimes we can count on luck or friends in field sites, these things are not usually available and you’ll have to count on just what you have planned to be able to go through it. Some improvisation is good because you never actually know what you are going through, but improvisation without a good planning won’t take you too far.

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