My Brief Career as a Bat Biologist

Since I was a child, I’d been fascinated by rain forests. Maybe I should’ve let that fantasy go.

Hot, sweaty, and half asleep after having spent the night sitting outside a cave, I carefully made my way down a steep mountain trail through the Trinidadian rain forest. Shortly before reaching the dirt road where our car was parked, nature called.

I searched for a secluded spot where I could attend to my business, and discovered two fallen bamboo trees, conveniently lying side by side—a natural toilet seat if I ever saw one. I carefully lowered my pants and sat down on the bamboo toilet, which promptly broke, sending me tumbling to the jungle floor, exposed to the venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions lurking in the leaves.

My pants tangled around my ankles, I scrambled to my feet, quickly brushed the dirt off my backside, and pulled my pants up, hoping no one had seen my embarrassing incident. This, unfortunately, was a portentous event.

In the fall of 1992, 10 years into my pharmacy career, I left the comfort of my job as a hospital pharmacist in suburban Boston and returned to school to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a biologist. Tropical biology was a hot topic in the ’90s, and “Save the rain forest” bumper stickers were everywhere. Lured by the glamorous image of scientific exploration in the tropics, I signed on as a graduate student in the lab of a biologist who studied bats and began working on my master’s degree.

Bats were an integral part of rain forest ecology, I had read—pollinating plants, dispersing seeds, and generally filling a wide variety of niches. The world of bat biology was to be my ticket to fascinating research opportunities in far-off, exotic places. A semester later I was in Trinidad with my faculty adviser and a young Ph.D. student. There are nearly 70 species of bats on the island, from small insect-eating bats with a wingspan of just a few inches to the carnivorous spectral bat, which has a wingspan approaching 3 feet.

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.

Scarcely two weeks into this routine I developed chronic diarrhea, lost nearly 10 pounds, and had a bat bite through my thumb. We were on the go from about 6 a.m. until midnight each day. On some nights we would stay out in the jungle, radio-tracking bats all night. Sleep, when I was able to get it, was sporadic at best.

The research station we were staying in had no air conditioning, and the large holes in the window screens let in not only the warm, humid night air but also whatever happened to be flying by. If you think the buzz of a mosquito is annoying while you’re trying to sleep, try the fluttering of bat wings near your pillow.

One night I was awakened by a high-pitched barking noise coming from the kitchen. I got up the courage to go find out what it was, grabbed a flashlight, and headed down the hall. Surprisingly, the noise was coming from a 6-inch-long lizard called a barking gecko, clinging to the ceiling. At sunrise the barking geckos were replaced by crowing roosters. There was no sleeping in.

I was quickly developing a loathing for all things tropical.

One day we traveled to a cave on another part of the island. It was smaller than the previous cave we had been working in and filled with thousands of bats of several different species. Once inside, we had to crawl through a 10-foot-long tunnel just wide enough to fit a single person—a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

After watching my colleagues disappear into the dark, narrow passageway, I sat for several minutes sweating and hyperventilating. I took a few deep breaths, lay down on my back, and shimmied into the tunnel feet first. The ceiling of the rock tube was about 6 inches above my face, with barely enough room to move. Midway through, a bat flew into the tunnel with me and got trapped, flapping furiously on my chest. When I reached the end of my ordeal I dropped down about 6 feet to the cave floor, dazed and shaken.

That evening I announced to my adviser I had had enough of bats, caves, and rain forests. My two-week career as a bat biologist came to an unceremonious end.

He kicked me out of his lab and told me to find a new adviser. (Under the circumstances I thought it best to move my stuff out of the room we shared.) Two days later, I caught a ride to the airport with another researcher. He was studying guppies, a less aggressive research subject.

When I landed back in Boston I couldn’t believe I was really home. I felt like kissing the ground. I kept looking around me and blinking hard to make sure I was really back and not just dreaming. When I walked through the door of my apartment, my roommates said, “What the heck are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be in Trinidad.”

You wouldn’t believe it, I responded.


Don Lyman is a freelance science writer, biologist, and pharmacist. He can be reached at donlyman@ix.netcom.com.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Originally Published October 2015