Bats Big and Small in the World’s Oldest Desert

Two desert elephant families convene at water just before sunset on the Hoanib River a few kilometers east of Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Theresa Laverty)

Traveling to a new country is always an eye-opening adventure. Coming to Namibia to try to figure out how insect-eating bats are affected by the dry season has been no exception. Namibia is the world’s second least densely populated country—behind Mongolia—and also one of its newest, only gaining independence from South Africa in 1990.

While it takes time studying a map, navigating Windhoek, the capitol city, felt like a breeze compared to Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya with a human population nearly ten times larger.

I’ve found that it is possible in Namibia to drive all day and hardly see another vehicle on the road, and many of the roads in the Kunene Region (my study area) are for 4×4’s only, leading you over large rocks, loose gravel, or deep sand. Needless to say, I’m thankful for my rented Toyota Hilux and its high clearance while navigating through these challenges in the world’s oldest desert.

Update on the Bats

My fieldwork the past week has proven to be quite successful. I am quickly becoming familiar with a diversity of bats with quite a few of them endemic to this region. I was somewhat astonished when an epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus angolensis) found its way into my net in Sesfontein, but I guess that was not the largest surprise given the fruiting fig trees in the area. This particular species of megabat is endemic to western Angola and northwestern Namibia. Sesfontein marks the southernmost edge of its distribution.

The remaining bats I have managed to catch thus far are little vespertilionids or molossids—microbats that feed on insects.

I take standard measurements—forearm length, sex, age, reproductive status, and weight. When there is time, I also collect small (2-millimeter) wing punches for subsequent genetic analysis since there is still much to be discovered regarding the ways African bat species have separated and evolved.

While I’m netting each night, a bat detector stationed nearby records the acoustic activity of bats in the vicinity. When I return to Namibia, I hope to develop a call library for the common bats in the Kunene Region, so I can utilize more non-invasive methods for my research in the future.

Not exactly the bat I expected to find in the desert... the Angolan epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus angolensis) must have been feeding on fruiting fig trees in Sesfontein.
Not exactly the bat I expected to find in the desert … the Angolan epauletted fruit bat (Epomophorus angolensis) must be attracted to fruiting fig trees in Sesfontein. (Photo by Theresa Laverty)

Introduction to the Team

Unlike my previous spells in East Africa, I am basically going completely solo for this research venture. I am relying, however, on the expertise of Archie Gawusab, my local field assistant, for finding the small, isolated desert water sources—some of which are natural, while others were human-installed for wildlife and/or livestock.

Archie worked many years earlier for my advisor, Professor Joel Berger, on a black rhino study in the same area and has been a primary contact for us in-country. This project would not have gotten off the ground, however, without speaking to many other researchers and local non-governmental organizations that all provided crucial tips for working in this isolated region of the world.

Facing the Holiday Heat

I am quickly getting back into the swing of fieldwork and have dismissed the thought of taking time off for winter holidays. (As a quick reminder, I’m writing this on December 29, 2014, to be posted when I return.) We spent a week netting on the Hoanib River. Since I want to cover as large of an area as possible, I am changing my netting location each night and only hope the next site’s water has shade nearby to wait out the afternoon temperatures that are often well above 100°F. In fact, my thermometer read 115°F in the shade three days ago.

A view from above of the ephermal Hoanib River, Kunene Region, Namibia (Photo by Theresa Laverty)
The ephemeral Hoanib River is mostly dirt now, with its bed baking in the sun of the Kunene Region of northwest Namibia. (Photo by Theresa Laverty)

A Night to Remember

We had quite an adventurous netting experience last night. Archie and I waited for two elephant families to finish watering before setting up our gear. Direct conflict with us is fairly unlikely, but the curious giants could easily cause major damage to our gear. About 30 minutes later, I looked up to find six bats hanging in the net. Archie instead saw an elephant bull at the edge of my light that was approaching the waterhole.

After a stressful 20 or so minutes of us waiting in the bakkie (a regional term for pickup truck), the bull finished drinking and left my bat detector and net somehow untouched. Whew! That was a huge relief and I ran out to untangle the now ten or so bats in the net. Next time, I hope we are dealing with one of the river’s less curious grazers, like giraffe, springbok, oryx, or ostrich instead.

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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!