Unmasking the bat
The lesser dog-faced fruit bat is the most common species in Singapore
Bats — the black-winged, flying creatures of the night are commonly associated with horror movies and Halloween. They may even evoke feelings of fear and disgust.
NUS Biological Sciences lecturer, Dr Joanna Coleman, has a very different reaction. She has worked with bats since 2005, with the nocturnal mammals forming a backbone to her research in urban ecology.
Over the years working with bats, they have become the animals she knows best. She has grown to “love them more than any other animal” and continues to be fascinated by them.
“Bats are interesting in so many ways, including the diversity of ecological roles they play; this diversity is unmatched among all orders of mammals. This also explains why bats are often providers of key ecosystem services in many environments; as pollinators, seed dispersers and the major predators of nocturnal insects,” Dr Coleman shared.
Her research involves the study of wildlife in urban environments, and naturally, Dr Coleman has a great interest in bats’ relationships with other organisms on Earth.
A discovery made six years ago by researchers in Borneo about Hardwicke’s woolly bats and pitcher plants is one that particularly excites her. The bats roost within the pitchers and in return, “pay rent” in the form of poop, giving the plant a nitrogen-rich meal of pre-digested insects. In fact, researchers later discovered that the bats find the pitchers by echolocation, while the pitchers evolved to give off just the right echoes to attract the bats.
Unlike any relationship she has seen between a plant and a mammal, the fact that the discovery was made in Southeast Asia also added to her enthusiasm.
“The bats of our region are among the most poorly studied in the world, so I suspect there are a lot of amazing discoveries to be made, and I want to see researchers get out there and do the work!” she declared.
Dr Coleman’s studies on bats have taken her to various places around the world, and with those came many unique experiences with these furry creatures. And on a couple of occasions, they have seemed oddly attracted to her.
For example, one little brown bat she captured during a field trip flew back to her after being released, landing on her pants and crawling up her legs. “I picked her up and she just seemed to want to be held and petted,” Dr Coleman recalled.
Another incident occurred when she was helping a fellow researcher during a bat survey in the United States. While walking around the site, they noticed something odd. “Apparently, a few bats were literally flying right behind me. [My colleague] told me to go stand by one of our nets. Sure enough we had much better luck from that point forward. She started calling me her bat magnet,” Dr Coleman recounted.
She hopes that in time, more awareness will help to overturn the current damaging opinions on the animal. “Bats are among the most reviled animals on earth, and negative public perceptions undermine support for their conservation, which is sorely needed. I would like to see people everywhere appreciating bats and not fearing or disliking them,” Dr Coleman said.
Currently, Dr Coleman and her students are working on projects investigating different aspects of bats. These include studies of their diet in relation to urbanisation; the Singapore public’s knowledge of and attitudes towards bats; as well as the impact of the change in the types of street lighting on bats.