Into the Island of Bats – Shelf Life #14

As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, I was always running around in the field and catching
snakes and lizards. But I really was in love with animals that
could fly. Bats are super special because in the Caribbean
there’s only a handful of native mammals remaining, and of all those groups, bats are
always the most species rich. And that makes them really unique because we can use bats as a tool, or as a model to study how changes in mammal communities
have happened over time. My name is Angelo Soto-Centeno and I am a
research associate at the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History. [series theme music plays]>>ANA LUZ PORZECANSKI:
If you want to understand how species have evolved over time around the whole Caribbean,
Cuba’s like a key piece of the puzzle. The main island is really much larger than
any other island in the Caribbean. And that means that it has more of a diversity
of environments. Organisms are able to arrive into the island and then they’re isolated for long periods of time. And that allows evolution to proceed in new
and unpredictable ways. I’m Ana Luz Porzecanski, Director of the
Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum has been collaborating with Cuban
scientists from different institutions for over 100 years. Some of our specimens were collected by renowned
Cuban naturalist Juan Gundlach, and date from before the Museum was founded. The Museum collections hold many Cuban specimens. For example, Megalocnus rodens – the giant
ground sloth that used to live in Cuba – as well as jade, invertebrates, fish, herps,
and bats.>>SOTO-CENTENO:
For my research, I’m interested in bat biodiversity and causes of extinctions of bats in the Caribbean. Professionally, Cuba was very exciting for
me because I’ve worked in the Caribbean for many years, and Cuba was the only island
that I hadn’t visited. And yet, this island is so important to really
understand the patterns of distributions that we have across these bats in the Caribbean.>>PORZECANSKI:
The Explore21 expedition to Cuba wanted to explore an area that hadn’t been explored
very often in the last few decades. And we brought together scientists from the
American Museum of Natural History, the Cuban National Museum of Natural History, and Humboldt
National Park, focusing on what can we document and detect in these forests, and how does
this compare to what has been registered there before.>>SOTO-CENTENO:
I know the biodiversity of Cuba pretty well from books, but never have seen a true Cuban
bat in my hand. So, that was really amazing. We would go out in the afternoon, and we searched for good sites in which we’re going to put our nets. Try to go to sleep for a couple hours, because
at 4:30 in the morning, I gotta wake up and go check the harp trap, take out the bats
that, you know, have been caught by this trap overnight. And then, you know, I start collecting all
the data that I need. Wing punching—it’s a pretty interesting
technique that allows us to sample a small piece of bat tissue to use for genetic analysis. And then the bat is released and it goes home
with a tiny, small hole. But it grows back within two, weeks, three
weeks or something like that. Personally, Cuba was also very rewarding because
I got to work with Gilberto Silva. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest
mammalogists in the Caribbean. He’s been studying bats since the ‘40s,
and working with scientists at the American Museum since the 1950s.>>PORZECANSKI:
Dr. Gilberto Silva Taboada has been a remarkable advocate and force for science in Cuba. He was the one who came up with the idea,
and really helped formalize the first national museum of natural history in Cuba. And of course, he has also promoted conservation
of many of these species.>>SOTO-CENTENO:
After our expedition Silva visited us at the mammalogy collections, here in New York City.>>SOTO-CENTENO:
For my research in the Caribbean, I also look at fossils. For the most part the fossils that we search
for are species that we have today. Once we collect all the fossil information,
we can plot it on a map. And see the past distribution of a species.>>SOTO-CENTENO:
Using climate models, fossil data, and the genetics will help us put together a whole
big story about how climate change itself in the past probably affected bats in the
Caribbean. So far, we’ve only been able to put half
of a story, right. Now, with this new information that we get
from Cuba we have evidence at a particular place and time that allow us to
make comparisons not only in present day, but also towards the past>>PORZECANSKI:
Every specimen that we have is really valuable. And that’s why also we welcome so many scientists,
including Cuban scientists, to come and study our collections. [upbeat music plays]

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