The excitement in her voice was palpable.
“Friday we just caught our first fruit-eating bat in the net since the storm,” Renanta Platenberg reported over the weekend.
The islands’ bat populations were hit as hard as everything else by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The storms destroyed habitat and displaced all types of bats, and they were especially hard on the fruit bat population, causing severe damage to their food source, the University of the Virgin Islands researcher and assistant professor of natural resource management said.
Platenberg has led efforts to study all five species of bats that call the islands home and has championed their preservation for more than a dozen years. They are beneficial because they pollinate vegetation and eat “tons and tons” of insects, while posing no threat to humans.
“Our bats in the Virgin Islands do not have any pathogens that can be transmitted to humans,” she said.
Her work, supported by a cadre of volunteers, includes conducting “Meet the Bats” public tours of natural colonies, monitoring and recording their songs, and catching, tagging and releasing the diminutive mammals.
Like almost every other aspect of life, that research was interrupted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last September.
First there were about six weeks of curfew, making it impossible to go out at night to study the nocturnal creatures. Once the curfew was lifted, there was another challenge: the damage that storms left behind in many wildlife habitats and the debris that blocked roads, paths and other access routes.
“We had to walk with chain saws,” Platenberg recalled. “At Magens (Bay) our study site was flooded until about February.”
To catch bats, the team strings netting across known or suspected flight paths. But research efforts reinstated after the storms weren’t netting anything for months.
“We weren’t seeing them or catching them,” Platenberg said. What they were seeing, however, were “birds collapsing and dying on the roads” – possibly, like the bats, from hunger.
A friend on St. Croix got a message to Platenberg that bats there were “dying all over the place” and the St. Croix Environmental Association reported that bats had abandoned a tower where they had been living. (They have since returned.)
As human residents know well, hurricanes not only uproot and blow down trees, the winds strip them of vegetation.
That means there was almost no food for the three species of bats in the territory that subsist on a diet primarily comprised of fruit: Artibeus jamaicensis, Brahyphylla cavernarum and Stenoderma rufum.
The Pallas Mastiff Bat, Molossus molossus, which dines exclusively on insects, is “doing okay.” And the Greater Bulldog, Noctilio leporinus, which eats fish and insects in addition to fruit, is “also doing well,” Platenberg said.
But to help the fruit bats last fall and winter, she took to social media, urging people to put bananas or other fruits outside on their decks and balconies to feed the starving creatures. The crisis may be over now, but it was a long time of stress on the bat population.
“It was three months before any of the trees were flowering,” the professor noted, and longer still before there was fruit. In fact, the mango crop that usually appears by May still hasn’t materialized.
There are other preservation concerns besides food sources. Last week UVI issued a press release asking residents who are repairing or rebuilding their houses to be mindful of bats that may have taken up residence in the damaged properties.
This is a critical time for the bats. Typically, pups are born in late June or early July and will stay in the roost for six to eight weeks until they are able to fly. Platenberg has a permit from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to handle bats and she is available to remove and relocate them. She can be contacted at at renata.platenberg@uviedu or at 340-344-9090.
So far, she said one homeowner has requested her services, and she spent part of Saturday searching an attic, but found no bats.
She has a couple of small flight cages that she has used in the past to temporarily house injured bats while they recover. She plans to use those if she finds one or two bats roosting in a home. Should she come across a colony (probably 20 or 30 bats) she said she can relocate them to a large enclosure.
There also are efforts underway to determine how to protect wildlife populations in future disasters by improving the resiliency of their natural habitat. For sea turtles this might include replanting sea grape on shorelines to provide for nesting. For bats, it may mean replanting some of the types of trees that were less effected last time. For example, Platenberg said, the tyre palm was one of the first trees to bloom after the storms; the pigeonberry which features a small red berry, also came back quickly.
Besides working with the St. Croix Environmental Association, Platenberg said she’s also in discussions with counterparts in the British Virgin Islands, specifically the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society, to develop mitigation strategies.