What It Feels Like... To Catch Bats in the Jungles of Malaysia

Biology professor Tigga Kingston leads a pilot learning project where elementary students participate via internet with her bat research in Malaysia.

Written by Cory Chandler

Tigga Kingston, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech University

Tigga Kingston, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, is leading a pilot learning project in which fourth- and fifth- graders at Frenship Independent School District’s North Ridge Elementary and Halifax Elementary School in Halifax, Mass., participate via internet with her bat research in Malaysia’s Krau Wildlife Reserve.

Malaysia is hot. Yes, Lubbock is hot, but Malaysia is hot and humid and it can take a while for new researchers to get used to being gently damp and sticky all day long.

Because we have a number of study sites distributed around the reserve we work in, daily life varies depending on which site we are working. Sometimes the accommodations are quite “posh” (for us): a station with running water, electricity and even beds! We have local villagers cook for us kampong style, or village style, so we get a nice sampler of Malay cooking, although it can be a bit spicy for the uninitiated.

Other times we are in forest camps we have to walk as many as 16 kilometers (10 miles) to reach.

In the camps we build a simple kitchen and lab; our beds are hammocks strung under a tarpaulin cover, and we shower in a river called Sungei Lompat.

Life slows down when even brushing your teeth requires a trip to the river, and getting into your hammock is a 10-step process, but I really enjoy the isolation from “real life” – no email, no cell phone, no computer.

Our life: catch bats, eat, sleep. Catch bats, eat, sleep. Repeat.

It can be a bit of a mission keeping the team supplied, with sets of porters trekking in every few days with food and clothes NEVER DRY in the camp!

Night Work

Like our bats, bat researchers work primarily at night, of course.

The forest at night is very different from during the daytime, aside from the fact that all you can see is what your head torch illuminates, it’s surprisingly noisy! Different sets of insects start calling at night, and in the rainy season there are all the off-key serenades from the frogs.

My favorite time is when we have done the first check of the traps, and just sit in the dark with our torches off for 15 minutes, chilling out before we check the traps again. You can just listen to the night-time symphony, and watch the forest floor glowing with luminescent fungi.

On moonlit nights there is nothing more magical than watching the moon peak through breaks in the forest canopy. We check the traps again in the morning, and our nighttime sound track has been changed to the singing of birds and the soulful duet of gibbons.

Look Out!

One of the nice parts of the daytime trap check is that you can see the leeches coming for you! Leeches are a real pain. They don’t transmit diseases, but because of the anticoagulant they transfer when they bite you, you bleed for ages. They are also decidedly stealthy, and you can have one on you happily gorging itself on your blood without noticing until they are so full that they drop off.

You also have to be sure to have a “look before you grab” policy – some of the trails can be a bit of a challenge with uneven terrain and small log-bridges over the streams. The last thing you want to do as you start to fall over is grab the nearest vegetation – rattan abounds in the forest and you are likely to come away with a ton of thorns embedded in your hand.

Careful Handling

I think perhaps the first thing you notice when handling one of the bats is how incredibly small and fragile they are. Some of them weigh as little as 3.5 grams (.1 ounces), so you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility not to hurt them as you work to collect the measurement data.

With some bats this is an easy job – we have a “starter” bat (so-called because it’s really passive and good for bat beginners) that just sits in your hand like a small, fluffy winged teddy bear. Other species, though still so small, get rather panicky and start trying to bite everything (including themselves if they can’t get at you), and it takes a fair bit of practice to collect all the data without anyone getting nibbled or stressed.

I find a gentle head massage behind the ears calms them down a bit when all is finished.

Playing Dead

Yet another species tends to “play dead,” lying at the bottom of the bat bag completely motionless – your heart stops and that awful feeling comes, and then it squawks to life and tries to take your hand off!

Even after all these years of handling tens of thousands of bats, I still feel a sense of wonder every time I hold one. Bats are mammals just as we are; squished into their tiny bodies are all the organs that we have. On top of that they can fly and echolocate – all with a brain the size of a split pea.

What’s your story? Contact Cory Chandler.

Photo by Artie Limmer.