Wednesday, November 30, 2022

We can thank bats for tacos, tequila

It’s probably not widely known that 1 million Mexican Free Tail Bats will eat 10 tonnes of insects in a single night. Or that the last taco you ate, or tequila you drank, was available thanks to bats, of which there are 138 species found in Mexico.

But more people are becoming aware of these facts through the efforts of Mexico’s own Batman, and the prestige earned this week by a documentary about his life work.

Biologist Rodrigo Medellín, a National Autonomous University (UNAM) professor and researcher and an international authority on bats, says his earliest passion was studying African mammals. He auditioned for a television quiz show and became the first child to appear on the program.

He chose mammals as his topic and made it through six rounds, and while he didn’t win, he caught the attention of UNAM professors, who invited him to work in their lab. He was 11 year old.

Forty-six years later he is an award-winning expert on bats, operating a conservation program in 25 states and and in other countries of Latin America. And he is the subject of a BBC documentary entitled The Bat Man of Mexico, which first aired in the United Kingdom (UK) in June, and this week was nominated for a Panda Award, the prestigious “Green Oscar.”

Narrated by British actor David Attenborough, the film explores the world of bats through Medellín’s eyes, going as far as to capture a birth, in which the mother delivers her pup while upside down, and then quickly catches it before it falls.

Medellín is the winner of several Whitley Awards, which recognize conservationists around the world. He won his first in 2004 and in 2012 was presented by the U.K.’s Princess Anne with the first annual Whitley Gold Award for “an outstanding individual contribution to conservation.”

But Mexico’s Batman’s focus is not on winning prizes, but showing the world how important a role bats play in the ecosystem by pollinating, dispersing seeds and even preventing the spread of infectious diseases. And it’s a tough job.

Bats have a bad rap, possibly dating back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, but it’s completely unfounded, says Medellín. Corn and even agave crops in Mexico have bats to thank for protecting them from pests and disease, and for pollinating. The latter, like everything bats do, takes place at night and they’re much more efficient at the job than birds.

Yet humans continue to destroy their habitat, vandalizing their roosts and their caves. He says vampire bats are indeed a pest.

“But most bats are highly beneficial — vital for pollination and seed dispersal and an invaluable asset to farmers in keeping down insect populations.”

If bats didn’t exist, he says, crops would be destroyed by insects in less than a month. And plants such as the agave wouldn’t pollinate. They rely on the the Tequila Bat for pollination; the plants happen to flower at the time the bats migrate.

“The link has been here for millions of years,” says Medellín. “Agaves rely on the bats to move their pod. Bats rely on agaves so they can survive. We could not have tequila if it weren’t for the bats.”

He would like to see the label on every bottle of tequila bear the line, “Bat-friendly,” so that people become more aware of the mammal’s importance.

Medellín had some good news to celebrate last year when the Tequila Bat was taken off the list of species under threat, after 20 years of efforts to bring back the numbers. It was, perhaps, the best award that one could give to Mexico’s Batman.

Sources: El Economista (sp), The Atlantic (en)

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