We headed off into the rain forest in search of Phyllostomus hastatus, the greater spear-nosed bat. With a wingspan of nearly 2 feet, it’s the second largest bat in Trinidad. Our priority would be studying the growth rates of Phyllostomus pups: capturing, weighing, and measuring baby bats periodically over our planned three-and-a-half-month stay. We would also be attaching radio transmitters to adult bats to track their movements.
Their cave dwellings were located about 2,000 feet above sea level. The winding trail we followed through the mountainous terrain was so steep at points I had to grab onto tree branches and shrubs to pull myself upward. Being saddled with a 50-pound backpack that contained food, water, and scientific equipment didn’t help matters. Stopping frequently to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from eyes, I soldiered on.
It took over an hour to reach our destination. Once outside the cave we built a makeshift field lab, and my professor had me cut down a couple dozen small trees to construct a lean-to. So much for saving the rain forest.
We used logs for benches and a large, flat rock as a table for the scale to weigh baby bats. We’d be working within a tight time window, as the adult bats would leave for dinner around sunset and return a couple hours later, when they were through foraging for fruit, insects, and other bat cuisine.
Once the parental bats departed we quickly entered the cave, which was uncomfortably hot and reeked of ammonia from the thick layer of guano that carpeted the cave floor. The bat excrement was literally crawling with beetles and their squirming larvae, which fed on droppings and dead bats.
I was extremely claustrophobic, which made going into caves even more daunting. Just sitting on the inside seat of a restaurant booth was a challenge for me, and I was going to do this? I entered the cave hesitantly, taking slow, deep breaths, struggling to stave off a panic attack. My heart pounding, I tried to stay focused on our work and kept up a constant stream of nervous chatter with my fellow researchers in order to distract myself from the confining environment.
We endured a near constant shower of bat urine and feces. Our miner’s helmets protected our heads, but our clothing quickly became stained with excrement. Wearing gloves, we plucked a couple dozen struggling, squealing babies from the ceiling, putting bat pups from the same harem into color-coded cloth bags so we could later return them to their proper locations.
We were now in a race against the clock. Should the adult bats return before we were through processing the babies, they would likely respond to their offspring’s distress calls by attacking us.
We gently placed our first baby bat on the scale. Being a pharmacist, I was skilled at weighing things like powders and ointments—but sitting on a log at night trying to weigh wriggling baby bats on a laboratory balance by the light of a miner’s helmet while shooing away clouds of bugs was another story.
Despite our best efforts, the adult bats returned before we were through. At first there were just a couple bats, flying close by us in response to their babies’ chattering. But before long there were half a dozen big bats dive-bombing us. Initially, they just flew within a few inches of our heads, making angry screeching noises and veering off without hitting us. But then they started banging into our helmets as they flew by, teeth first.
Unnerved by the bats bouncing off my miner’s helmet, I was constantly ducking as I tried to weigh the babies, read the scale, and call out accurate numbers to my fellow researchers.
Soon the agitated bats began fighting, rolling around on the jungle floor, screeching and biting each other. The surreal pandemonium seemed more like a Stephen King novel than a rain-forest adventure.