From Mega to Mini: Tracing Surprising Animal Connections

A Grevy’s zebra takes a stroll in front the rolling hills and rising sun in Laikipia District, Kenya (Photo by Theresa Laverty)

Two and a half years after my last stint living in Africa, I find myself returning to the field where the megaherbivores still roam free.

For nearly two years in Kenya, I chased after elephants to get the right angle for individual identification, set up camera traps to investigate how land management practices affect savanna wildlife communities, and took a stab at some restoration ecology work. I subsequently spent a year tromping through the forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, after a group of mountain gorillas for a Max Planck Institute long-term behavioral study.

This time, however, I am bound for southern Africa and will be putting the large mammals aside to search for animals that are much smaller, but instill much fear in people around the world—bats.

From Mega to Mini

The way I went from focusing on mega to mini was that what really interests me is not the size or hype behind a certain species, but rather how a whole group of species interact together to make up a wildlife community.

As I was researching Namibia, home of the world’s oldest desert and the only place where we find elephants, black rhinos, giraffes, lions, and traditional pastoralist communities all living together in such an arid region, I began to wonder about how wildlife and livestock impact the areas around water bodies in a way that might affect seemingly unrelated animals. In this case, those animals were insectivorous bats—a group of nocturnal species naturally tied to water in desert systems.

The Link Between Bats and Baths

Many rivers in Namibia are almost entirely subterranean throughout the year, and above-ground water only flows after substantial rainfall events. There are, however, small, natural springs in the riverbeds on which both livestock and free-roaming wildlife depend.

Many insects are also linked to water at some stage of their life cycles, or connected to it because they feed primarily on the vegetation close to water sources that persist despite a lack of rainfall. This should make them particularly attractive to insectivorous bats, who would use these sites for replenishing the water they lose each day in the desert heat, and as hunting grounds for their insect prey.

Here’s the Plan …

My pilot study aims to see what diversity of bat species we can expect to find in arid northwestern Namibia, and how that might change relative to the mammalian herbivore communities using the water sources. This trip, I will be primarily focusing on the Huab, Hoanib, and Hoarusib Rivers and the areas in between along an east-west running area of variable rainfall. Given my lack of reliable internet access in the field, these posts will be published after I return in late January, 2015. Nevertheless, I hope you won’t mind the time warp, and will enjoy reading about my adventures exploring a new part of Africa in search of bats.

Read All Posts by Theresa Laverty

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
My name is Theresa Laverty, and I am a PhD candidate in Colorado State University's Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. I study the community ecology surrounding desert water sources in Namibia. More specifically, I examine how large mammalian herbivores, via their direct and indirect effects on vegetation and insect communities around rare, aboveground water bodies, could impact bat communities that prey on insects. My research takes place along the ephemeral desert rivers of the northwest, where elephants, giraffe, black rhinos, and many smaller herbivores live among the livestock of traditional pastoralists. I hope you enjoy reading my posts from the field!