Research Team Studying Island’s Only Remaining Native Mammal

The Department of Planning and Natural Resources’ Division of Fish and Wildlife is two years into a three-year study of the Virgin Islands’ only remaining native mammal, and one of the most important animals when it comes to local ecology — bats.

Island Resources Foundation and Fish and Wildlife’s Wildlife Biologist Renata Platenberg have teamed up for the three-year-long project, funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose final motivation is to determine the health of local bat populations and what can be done if the populations are declining. Platenberg is working with Kevel Lindsay and Jean-Pierre Bacle of IRF, and the study’s chief scientist, Dr. Gary Kwiecinski of Scranton University.

It’s too soon to tell just how Love City bats are doing, although it’s already become apparent that two bat species are very rare on the island — the red fig-eating bat and the Brazilian free-tailed bat, according to Lindsay.

“The red fig-eating bat is a very small fruit bat endemic to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and the Brazilian free-tailed bat is fairly widespread in the southern U.S. down to Brazil and in the Caribbean,” said Lindsay. “However, in the V.I. it seems very rare and we don’t know why. We need to understand more about why this is so, and if the reason is because of human activities, how we go about addressing these issues.”

Bats Not Flying Rodents
While many people simply dismiss bats as flying rodents, the mammals are no more akin to rats than they are to humans, and in fact, bats are extremely important to the ecology of St. John, explained Lindsay.

“They are very important for pest control and also for spreading seeds of many forest trees and plants for regeneration,” he said. “They’re a keystone species in the Virgin Islands because they help to regenerate the forest and help the forest continue to survive.”

The team is using nets to catch bats in their natural habitats and evaluate different aspects which point to the health of the overall bat population, explained Platenberg.

“We use nets that we string across areas where we expect bats to fly,” she said. “We catch them, identify them, look at reproduction and things like that and then we release them.”

The research team is investigating where the bats live, where they feed, which species live in which type of habitat, how many species there are and how to go about addressing conservation issues. Habitats from the wet forest to the coast are being explored.

Few Bat Caves
There are few bat caves on St. John due to the terrain. Bats are more often found locally in roosts, many of which are on the island’s south shore, explained Lindsay.

“There are a number of roosts along the coast, mostly on the south coast,” he said. “They’re in historical sites at Reef Bay — the estate and the old mill have fairly large bat populations. There are some caves on the southeastern, south and west coasts of St. John.”

Lindsay hopes to eventually help establish a local bat box effort, where homeowners will be given bat boxes to install at their residences, attracting bats and therefore reducing mosquitos and other insect populations.

The research team anticipates releasing its report on Virgin Islands bats in early 2009, which will include a bat conservation strategy. In the meantime, Lindsay reminded St. John residents that bats are fascinating animals.

“They are very charming animals up close, but just like wild animals, you have to be careful handling them,” said Lindsay. “They help to keep nature in balance, and we need to be able to protect them. We can do a lot more to help increase their populations just by being cognizant of the fact they have certain needs, and by incorporating those needs into our own activities.”