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Bats Help the Forest

By: Annika Keeley.

Maybe you already went on a bat tour here at Tirimbina, or have heard somewhere else about the amazing diversity of bats. There are about 1100 different kinds of bats in the world, most of which occur in the tropics. Costa Rica is home to 109 species, of which 63 occur in Tirimbina. One species feeds on blood, some eat insects, others drink nectar, and many eat fruit. These fruit-eating bats are well known for the important role they play in the ecosystem by swallowing and then dispersing small seeds of pioneer trees, which are the first trees to grow in disturbed areas and thus can begin the process of forest regeneration. But can they also disperse seeds too large to swallow?

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Felipe Melo, Bernal Rodriguez-Herrera and other researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the University of Connecticut looked under roosts of the small Watson’s fruit-eating bat (Artibeus watsoni) to answer this question . They used their knowledge of the bats’ special roosts under large leaves, called leaf tents, to find roosts. They located 194 leaf tents in 5 different forests and searched for large seeds (> 8 mm) in a one square meter area underneath the roosts. Under 103 tents they found 1030 seeds from 46 species.

For comparison, they also searched for large seeds some distance away from the roosts and found only 268 seeds from 34 seed species. This means that the bats carried a lot of different kinds of seeds to their roosts where they ate the pulp surrounding the seeds and thus dispersed the seeds away from the mother plants.


The study was conducted in three mature forests and two small patches of secondary forest. While there was virtually the same number of seed species under the bat roosts in both types of forest, fewer seeds were under the bat roosts in the secondary forests. This indicates that habitat disturbance may have an impact on the dispersal of large seeds by bats. While there were not as many seeds under leaf tents in secondary forests, there were still a large number of different kinds. Thus bats likely play a critical role in maintaining or re-establishing plant diversity in lower quality secondary forests. Melo, Felipe P.L., Bernal Rodriguez-Herrera, Robin L. Chazdon, Rodrigo A. Medellin, and Gerardo G. Ceballos. 2009. Small tent-roosting bats promote dispersal of large-seeded plants in a neotropical forest. BIOTROPICA 41: 737–743.

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