Wildlife Conservation Grants for Graduate Student Research
Panama Bats

Weighing a bat

Angela Aarhus weighs a bat while Panamanian student Deiby's Fonseca records data.

Imagine looking for bats at night 8,000 feet up in a cloud forest in Panama. That’s what Angela Aarhus did for six months, at least nine nights a month, often from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. During the day she taught schoolchildren in a rural village on the edge of the forest.

Thanks to a nearly $2,000 grant from the Zoological Society of Milwaukee and some other funding, Aarhus was able to buy equipment to conduct a study on Panama bats at high elevations. She designed the study and asked for grants during the first year of a two-year stint teaching for the U.S. Peace Corps in the Central American Republic of Panama.

Her goal was to gather basic data that had never been collected on the diversity and habitat requirements of highland bats in Panama. This data, combined with information from studies of Panama bats at lower elevations, will be used to educate Panamanians about the value of bats. It also may help improve park management aimed at conserving bats.

“As in many countries, most people in Panama are scared of bats. Most think that all bats drink blood and carry rabies,” says Aarhus. She taught people in a small farming village in the western province of Chiriqui that the bats in La Amistad (Friendship) International Park near their village control insects, disperse seeds, pollinate plants and are a “keystone species” important to the forest’s survival. “People were surprised by the fact that of all the bats I caught, not one was a vampire bat.”

A great fruit-eating bat (Artibeus lituratus)

Fonseca holds up a great fruit-eating bat (Artibeus lituratus).

What she did find was that one resident nectar-drinking bat, Geoffroy’s hairy-legged bat, was important to the survival of one species of flower because that bat was that flower’s main pollinator. The flower, however, was also important to the bat because the bat reproduced only when the flower was present.

From May through November 2001, she captured and banded 1,050 bats representing 15 species. Her results will be combined with those of Ph.D. student Rafael Samudio of Panama (doing research for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), who helped Aarhus design her study and allowed her to work under his research permit. The future of bat conservation in Central American countries, especially at middle and high elevations, may rely on data they collected, she says.

Aarhus got local villagers involved in her study. She hired a student to go with her at night to put up large mist nets to capture bats. Village women who at first were afraid of bats lost their fear after seeing Aarhus handle them. Then they offered to help her. These women formed part of a local eco-tourism group that cooked for tourists visiting the beautiful cloud forest and waterfalls of La Amistad. “They talked to tourists about the value of bats. The eco-tourism group also helped me teach environmental education in the school,” says Aarhus. “So this was an opportunity to teach townspeople plus kids in school, as well as the tourists.”

Aarhus’ research was her master’s thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she graduated with a master’s degree in natural resource management. A native of Orange, Calif., Aarhus, was in the Masters International Program, co-sponsored by the Peace Corps and the university. She credits Eric Anderson, a professor of wildlife ecology at Stevens Point, with providing her guidance and logistical support while she was in Panama.