The rare bat that could disappear due to a planned road in the Amazon

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Semana Sostenible, La Lindosa, Colombia

 

Photos: Rafael Agueldo

Guided by the Golden light of sunset, Rafael Agudelo screws three thin metal tubes together to form a 2-meter-high rod that he then sinks into a hole in the ground. 

He delicately unwinds a fragile black netting and ties is to the rod, extending it and tying to a similar rod to form a sort 4-meter-long volleyball net that shines in the middle of the plains. A ball of yellow cord in his hand, he tenses and ties strings from the metal tubes to the trunks of nearby plants, just as if he were pitching a camping tent. He repeats the operation with another net a few meters away and almost parallel to the first one.

“Now we wait,” he says, while he checks the supplies in his backpack. Thick gloves, several measuring tools, a clipboard, two flashlights, a raincoat, a pot with dinner prepared by his grandmother (fried eggs, rice and plantains), two Todo Rico chips.

The sun is almost setting, marking the moment when he will begin working in this forest clearing, one kilometer away from a popular bathing spot and a half-hour motorbike ride from San Jose del Guaviare, one of the largest populated areas in Colombia´s Amazon region. 

Agudelo, a lank and silent 24-year-old with a taste for heavy metal, is finishing his undergrad studies in biology at the Quindio University. Born and raised in San Jose del Guaviare, he asked his thesis advisor Hugo Mantilla, who is Colombia`s leading bat expert, if he could conduct a species inventory in the Serranía de la Lindosa. After all, only three years before only two scientific registers of bats had been conducted in the entire department of Guaviare, the size of Croatia.

But, despite being such a densely wooded region, very few biologists have studied the biodiversity in an area where conflict left at least 30 thousand victims (one out of every four persons) and FARC roamed the thick forests freely.

 

There are also new risks. The more pressing one is the Marginal Jungle Road, that seeks to connect the 381 kilometers between San Jose del Guaviare and San Vicente del Caguan. Although it is only in its planning phase at the Ministry of Transportation, biologists are very concerned because its outline has already become –according to the Ministry of the Environment- in one of the eight deforestation hotspots in Colombia.

The hidden treasures of La Lindosa

The landscape in front of him is deceitful. It resembles a prairie from afar, but a closer inspection reveals that instead of soil there is a reddish porous rock. 

This is one of the rocky flatlands typical in this unique ecosystem known as the Lindosa Range, the younger –and lesser-known- sister of two mountain ranges that rise above the Amazon to the east of the Andes. The other two are the Macarena Range, where the lavishly colorful Cristales Creek is located, and the Chiribiquete Range, where imposing tepuys elevate over the Amazon and are home to one of the most isolated patches of tropical rainforest. These are the three Colombian links in the rocky chain known as the Guiana Shield, a pre-Cambrian geological formation that dots the Amazon all the way to its delta in Brazil.

It was in this spot where, during his first outing in February, Agudelo made an unexpected finding. Toward midnight, a dark-skinned bat the size of his hand fell into the netting. Its most striking features were unusually large ears and an even taller, pointed nose. He immediately identified it as belonging to the Lonchorhina genus, or sword-nosed bats.

The next morning, he wrote to his teacher Hugo Mantilla, dubbed by local media the ‘Colombian Batman’. “It must be aurita,” he replied, referring to a common species in the region with similar traits. “But send me the photo.”

This time the diagnosis was different. “It´s mankomara,” he said. Mantilla recognized the specimen in the picture at once. After all, he discovered it less than a year ago during a scientific expedition to the remote Chiribiquete National Park. He was also the person who named it: ‘manko’ for the word for mother in the Karijona indigenous language and ‘mara’ after his own mother’s name.

“Species are pages in the largest encyclopedia we know, from which we are tearing pages and entire chapters. We have had very few opportunities in Colombia to understand what we might lose. We risk not even knowing what we’re losing,” says Hugo Mantilla, who had already discovered three other bat species before.

For Mantilla, the genetic information of mankomara –with its gigantic ears and nose- might be the clue to solving practical problems like hearing loss in humans. This is why Scientific American, the most prestigious science journalism magazine, described his finding as “a valuable book of information on the functions of echography and echolocation.”

With news from his tutor, Agudelo and his thesis companion Valentina Guerra returned to this rocky patch the same evening. That night they spotted it once again, effectively proving that its distribution range is much larger than the isolated Chiribiquete and –at the same time- that the area of influence of the Marginal Road of the Jungle has an enormous and untapped potential in biodiversity.

“Our biologist dream is to go to Chiribiquete, since it is an evolution lab, home to new species to science and a place untouched by man. But we are now discovering that we have had a small Chiribiquete right here all along,” he says. 

Agudelo has not yet finished his fieldwork, but he has already made several significant findings.

He captured a specimen of Sphaeronycteris toxophyllum, known as the visored bat because of a pink horny outgrowth above its leaf-shaped nose. Although it is found in several South American countries, this fruit-eating bat has only been collected a dozen times since its discovery 30 years ago and is so little known that its status on the IUCN list of endangered species is still ‘data deficient’. In Colombia, there was only one previous register, precisely by Hugo Mantilla.

He also found a specimen of Phylloderma stenops, or pale-faced bat, a species living from Belize to Brazil but very seldom studied. One of its traits is that, since it lives on treetops, it can be used as a thermometer to gauge the level of impact in the forests where it is found. “It reveals that this place is still well preserved, but it must remain so”, says Agudelo.

Besides these, in the San Jose marsh surrounding the city, they found a specimen of the  Chiroderma family that they have not been able to identify and which could –it appears so- be new to science. Sadly they haven’t been able to spot it since that time in March, as the vegetation in the bog was burnt afterward.

In total, they have identified 40 different species in less than six months. And there is still one bat they have not been able to identify, whose picture he carries as his cell phone photo like a talisman.

But perhaps his most important finding has been mankomara. After all, it has only been observed and registered 15 times in all: 9 by Mantilla in Chiribiquete and 6 by them in La Lindosa.

After war, a space for regional science

In the dimly lit end of the afternoon, the sky began to fill with fluttering shadows. A few minutes later, a minuscule grey spot stood out against the backdrop of the horizontal web-like netting. 

Agudelo put his leather gloves on and plucked the animal from the netting. He delicately brought the forearms together over the bat´s back, ensuring he could examine it without causing it any harm. With a caliper, he measured the bat´s head, ears and tail. “2, 1.4, 1,” he mustered, while his teenaged cousin Camilo –out of school on account of the month-long teachers´ union strike- wrote on the clipboard. He extended its wing to measure its forearm. He separated its tiny feet to measure the uropatagium, a baggy membrane between them.

“It´s a Peropteryx macrotis,” he concludes, voicing the Latin name for the lesser dog-like bat, of the early-rising kind. The following two are equally common: a short-tailed fruit bat from the Carollia genus and a flat-faced fruit-eating bat.

Night arrived with a heavy downpour. Cloaked by his raincoat, Agudelo inspected the empty netting. On this evening in the rainy season he was far from the frenzy that usually accompanied dry season, when anywhere from 80 to 100 chiropters would be captured per outing.

After two hours of persistent rain and less than ten bats observed, when Agudelo was preparing to return home to sleep, a large spot in the bottom quarter of the net called his attention. He lit his flashlight and excitedly ran for his gloves. When he returned, there was nothing besided the netting. It had escaped. 

“That was mankomara,” he says without hesitation. “Did you see his nose? Just like a sword,” he asks me. At this late hour few other species roam around, he adds. 

In the distance, light clouds announced a storm. It was time to pack the nets. As he rolled up the netting, another animal fell. He barely managed to catch a glimpse when it managed to break free and fly away. Although he only saw it fleetingly, it was probably another mankomara.

Another evidence of the biological wealth of the Lindosa Range and the entire corridor of plains, rivers and forest where the Marginal Jungle Road will be built. 

With the added value being that those documenting it are regional scientists. “We’re seeing boys from the region educating themselves and then returning, to generate knowledge locally and thus contribute to their communities,” says Mantilla.

“My work is focused on giving the Lindosa importance. What comes next here is amazing, in science and in tourism,” says Agudelo, as he packs his sticks, cords and nettings. “The only green way out I see is ecotourism.”