The White Bat, threatened ambassador of bats in the Neotropics
5th July 2017 Written by Hernani Oliveira
"Dark, blood sucker creatures of the night". Although there are more than 1,300 bat species in the world with a wide range of morphologies, adaptations, and feeding habits, if you ask anyone in the neotropics what they think about bats or what they look like, that is probably one of the most common answers you will get. This association has been popularized by tales, books and movies.
However, there are only three bat species that actually feed on blood, with just two potentially feeding on human blood. These events are rare and usually happen in places where the forest has been cut down, and the bats are left with few options to feed on wild animals. On the other hand, people have such a negative perception of bats that they are very often killed when they fly into houses or are not taken into account when planning for conservation in Latin America.
There is a big diversity of morphologies and colours within bats. Contrary to the expectation of most people, and even to the majority of cases in the bat world, there are a few white bat species. No, they are not albinos, they are really white!
The White Bat (Ectophylla alba), also known as Honduran White Bat, is one of them. It is white and grey with black and yellow wings. It is one of the smallest species in the Phyllostomidae family (leaf-nosed bats) and has a very limited distribution, occurring only in wet, evergreen forest and tall secondary growth in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
It has been assessed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of threatened species since its population has significantly declined due to habitat degradation caused by urban expansion. Another threat to this species is that they seem to have an extremely specialised diet focused on only one plant species (Ficus colubrina).
Although they are threatened, their cute looking face and incredible natural history have helped researchers not only to bring awareness to their conservation, but also to help inform people around the world about different aspects of bat ecology.
One curious aspect of their ecology, for example is that they are part of a group of bats called tent roosting bats, which comprise 21 bat species worldwide known to use modified leaves as roosts. The White Bat uses at least 10 plant species as roosts with females using their teeth to cut the side veins of the plant leaf until it folds forming a tent. Up to 12 bats can be found in these tents, and groups usually include only one male and many females.
Check out the video below of a White Bat eating a fig in Costa Rica. You can see more videos of this species here.
All photos and video credited to Hernani Oliveira and reproduced with permission.