Utila is not a place many people have heard of. Type it into a search and you’ll discover a small island off the coast of Honduras, famed for affordable diving courses and a crazy nightlife. So even if you had heard of it, you probably wouldn’t think it would be somewhere to research terrestrial wildlife.
Last year, I heard about a research base on the island called Kanahau and decided to do a volunteer placement there. I had no idea what to expect, but what I found was a fantastic community of researchers, passionate about their interests. The island was also full of opportunities to research my main interest – bats.
My illustration of a Jamaican fruit-eating bat - all drawings and photos by Maisy Inston
Utila has 13 different bat species. Hummingbird-like long-tongued bats live in the cave near the research base; greater sac-winged bats decorate the trunks of trees; and stripy pygmy fruit bats snooze inside their leaf tents. This place is like heaven to me!
A group of pygmy fruit-eating bats inside a tent
Having returned home, I decided what I’d research for my dissertation. I was going back to Kanahau, and this time, research tent-making bats! I remembered what a worthwhile experience it had been for me in my first year of university to stay at Kanahau, and so I decided I’d bring along some first year students with me!
A view of tents from below
In total, four students accompanied me on various parts of my six-week stay. One of the great things about Kanahau is that as a volunteer (and even as a researcher) you get to participate in the range of projects being carried out at the base. You can look around the hardwood forests for fabulously coloured anole lizards, search in the swamps for the vibrant blue endemic species of iguana (the Utila spiny-tailed iguana, or swamper), and have a go at mist netting bats in the evening! It can be tough work, but seeing animals in their natural habitat, and aiding their conservation, makes it worth every single step of the way.
My research focussed on gaining as much information about the two species of bat known to roost in tents on the island: Artibeus jamaicensis (the Jamaican fruit-eating bat) and A. phaeotis (the pygmy fruit-eating bat). The bats on the island chew the leaves of Sabal species (a fan-shaped palm) to form small tents that then act as shelter from predators and adverse weather conditions. Tent-making is a phenomenon observed in a few tropical bat species, and this was one of the first research projects being done on these bats in Utila.
This is the 'crown' of the tent, showing where the bats have chewed to collapse the fronds
My data collection protocol involved approaching a bat tent and looking inside with my phone mounted on a 3M long selfie stick. I’d take a photo inside the tent, retrieve the stick and check for bats. If there were bats inside, I’d count how many there were and which of the two species were inside. Should the tent be empty, I would measure characteristics of the tent, such as the length of the leaf blade, the width of the stem and the light levels inside the tent (to name but a few). In total, Team Bat (as we came to be known) measured 306 different tents!
The research was going well, but I couldn’t help noticing just how much the landscape had changed on Utila from my trip last year. The road into the forested area leading to our base was widened and concreted, allowing for the surrounding land there to be more easily developed. This has meant that many areas that are good for bats and other Utila wildlife may be destroyed if the land is used unsustainably. In just the few weeks I stayed there, we already began seeing the effects. Trees used frequently by basking iguanas along the road were removed, patches of wild grasses and trees were hacked down to make the view from the hill more appealing, and bats, iguanas and crabs are now being found as roadkill.
Here are some bat tents that have been cut down for development
It is saddening but Kanahau are doing the best they can for the wildlife! Beach cleans are run every week, the research into the rare and undiscovered species still goes on, and just the other day I was asked to design a road sign to warn people to slow down for the bats flying across the road. The research base is also raising funds to buy an area of land as a reserve for the endangered endemic iguana species.
Kanahau is a fantastic place to volunteer and conduct research, so I recommend having a look at their website. Unfortunately, the deforestation story on Utila is similar across the world, but it’s always heartening to remember the people that are still battling to give wildlife a voice, and hopefully my research can contribute towards that.
An illustration of a pygmy fruit-eating bat I completed whilst at the research base
Maisy is a 20 year old Zoology student at the University of Exeter and is passionate about the awesome natural world! Her particular enthusiasm lies with bats and her artwork aims to dispel the negative portrayal these incredible animals have by showing them as beautiful and intricate. She is a regular illustrator for the Bat Conservation Trust's children’s magazine, the Young Batworker, and believes that educating the younger generation about the wonderful world of nature is the way forward for conservation! Check out her Instagram @maisyinstongram and her Facebook page @maisyinstonillustration/