Category Archives: Lab Research

Notes from the field: Vendovi Island

Gearing up for this summers’ field work! Last week Sharlene, Abby, Jim and I set out to conduct a pilot survey of the bats on the Vendovi Island preserve. In collaboration with the San Juan Preservation Trust, a local non-profit land trust, we carried two nights of surveys to begin documenting the bat diversity on this 217 acre island. This was an excellent opportunity to help the trust in their broader efforts to document the biodiversity on this island preserve. It was also a valuable opportunity for me to kick start my research on the San Juan Islands, which I will be starting in July on San Juan and Orcas Island.

Over our two-night survey, we captured bats 2 of the 10 species documented to occur throughout the archipelago. Surprisingly, all of the bats we caught were males. So, is Vendovi Island a bachelor pad for bats? Our surveys were too limited to say for now. I hope to return later in the season, as maternity colonies begin to form to assess whether females, and other bat species also inhabit the island. For more information about the biodiversity of Vendovi Island or the San Juan Preservation Trust, click here.

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Notes from the field: La Selva

Leith, Rochelle, and an adorable Ectopylla alba

La Selva has been a fascinating place to visit. While Rochelle and I both had impressions of what a tropical rainforest would be like, we were both amazed at the lush, complex habitat and the organismal diversity that goes along with it. For me, I learned an extensive amount, not only about the ecological dynamics in the wet rainforest, but also more about the diversity of bats. We had the wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. Gloriana Chaverri.  She gave us an opportunity to study the acoustic properties of neotropical bat distress calls, (primarily phyllostomids). Then, we conducted playback experiments to investigate the how surrounding bats (intraspecifics and interspecifics) respond to these calls . In addition to our research, we were also busy working with Day’s Edge Production to produce a short film portraying the story of our research experience at La Selva. Check out the link below to see our video!   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU3Ss0NiPPw

The muscles behind the bite force: bat muscles in 3D

A lot of our current lab work has been focused on 3D modeling of the muscles involved in opening and closing the jaw in Neotropical leaf-nosed bats. We use iodine to stain cranial soft tissues, which enhances contrast before taking microCT scans of different bat species. This allows us to image the anatomy in great detail, and to study the muscle proportions and attachments in these very small mammals prior to dissecting the muscles. We can then segment out individual muscles and create 3D meshes that can be implemented in our bite force models! The slideshow below shows a raw, black-and-white coronal scan slice through the head of a frog-eating bat, Trachops cirrhosus, and several images of the reconstructed 3D jaw adductors.

 

Tropical Biology in Costa Rica

Leith and I just arrived in Costa Rica for a field course in Tropical biology with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). Our first stop is Palo Verde, a dry tropical forest that is a unique habitat.  Here with the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) course, we are observing an incredible diversity of wildlife from longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae), to the frog-eating bat, Trachops cirrhosus, to the Limpkin, Aramus guarauna. Drawing inspiration from this mega-diverse ecosystem, we are carrying out research projects, learning cutting edge research techniques, and squeezing a little time in for fun too.

If you would like to keep up with our progress visit our course website.  We upload a science minute podcast daily and blog about our progress overall on the course.

http://aiteots.wordpress.com/about/

Notes from the field: Ectophylla alba

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Ectophylla alba, the Honduran white bat, is a unique species of Neotropical leaf-nosed bat. Not only they are among the very few species of bats that are almost completely white, but they are extremely specialized in their diets and roosting ecology. Males and females of the species skillfully construct delicate tents from the leaves of Heliconia plants, and their diet is restricted to fruits of Ficus colubrinae plants. During our most recent trip to Costa Rica, we had the opportunity to record and measure these bats as they frantically fed from a F. colubrinae fruiting tree (below). Fruiting events in Ficus plants occur in short bursts and are scattered throughout the landscape, and E. alba likely choose places to “camp out” according to the potential for food availability.

 

Integration of bat skulls

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Previous research in vertebrates has demonstrated that selection can cause rapid evolutionary changes in cranial modularity, that is, how many and which parts of the skull vary and evolve together. Mammals, however, seem to have maintained a simple pattern of cranial modularity throughout their evolutionary history and across tremendous ecological and morphological diversity. All mammals studied to date have two cranial modules, the braincase and rostrum. But what happens when parts of the skull acquire novel functions? Does cranial integration remain the same? We just published a study in which we test whether skull modularity has been remodeled in rhinolophid bats due to the novel and critical function of their nasal cavity in echolocation. Rhinolophids have greatly enlarged nasal cavities that vary in shape across species, thus we predicted that nasal echolocation resulted in the evolution of a third cranial module, the ‘nasal dome’, in addition to the braincase and rostrum modules. Remarkably, despite large variation in the shape of the nasal dome, we found that the integration of the rhinolophid skull still follows the two-module pattern found in other mammals. In other words, the shape of the nasal cavity changes together with the shape of the snout across species. We also found distinct trends in the evolution of skull shape across these bats’ geographic distribution. Our findings highlight that broad morphological and functional diversity can still be achieved in spite of a relatively simple modular template.

Does nasal echolocation influence the modularity of the mammal skull? – Santana & Lofgren (2013) – Journal of Evolutionary Biology 

Costa Rica 2013

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After the Belize warm up, I went to Costa Rica to work at two main sites, the Tirimbina Forest Reserve and OTS La Selva research station. The major goal of this trip was to collect fecal samples for molecular dietary analyses in foliage-gleaning bats, along with performance data across bats and other mammals. These data will allow us to understand patterns and mechanisms of food resource partitioning within and across dietary guilds. With the help of collaborator Dr. Bernal Rodríguez Herrera and his students at the Universidad de Costa Rica, we were able to collect data for a total of 24 species of bats, plus several kinkajous.

One of the trip highlights included catching Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba), a very small frugivore that builds tents in the vegetation. Findings about Ectophylla’s tent construction behavior have changed the paradigm that only male bats build these roosts as part of a resource-defense polygynous system; female Ectophylla also contribute to building tents. A second high point was collecting a wrinkle-faced bat (Centurio senex), a very rare and morphologically derived stenodermatine that is built to bite. Just as impressive, the second largest bat in the Neotropics (Phyllostomus hastatus) made its appearance in our nets and contributed to our dataset. With such stunning biodiversity, we are very much looking forward to continue work and collaborations in Costa Rica. Pura vida!

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Belize 2013!

The field season 2013 started with a bang! This May, I joined 40+ international bat biologists in a yearly expedition to Lamanai, Belize. The trip was led by Dr. Brock Fenton, a bat expert from the University of Western Ontario who has been visiting the site for over 20 years. Lamanai is impressive with biodiversity and archeological remains;  jaguar faces not only decorate the Mayan temples, but these animals can be seen around the area as well.

With a few dozen bat researchers in the group, projects were as diverse as the bats: morphology of wings, muscles, skulls and reproductive tracts, echolocation, feeding behavior, diet, flight aerodynamics, radio tracking, viruses, and more. We caught around 500 bats from 28 species, the great majority of which were released unharmed. The voucher specimens that were kept will serve as the basis of studies in labs across five institutions, which is an impressive use of field-collected specimens. These will continue to be available to researchers at the American Museum of Natural History’s Mammal Collection.

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Primate faces on Discover

uakariWhy do primates have such colorful and distinct faces? We have been trying to answer this question in a broad comparative context by integrating data on the two most likely drivers of primate facial diversity: sociality and ecology. A major challenge during this research has been to quantify the facial patterns in a way that is comparable across hundreds of primates species. So, we devised  a metric, “facial complexity”, which represents how many colors there are in a primate’s face. Much to my own surprise, the evolution of facial complexity seems to be tightly linked to social group size and species sympatry. This is usually a positive relationship (Neotropical primates are the oddball), indicating that differences in the number of colors in primate faces provide cues that might be used for species and/or individual recognition.

This research has been getting a lot of media coverage (I guess everyone likes monkeys!), and a new article in Discover magazine does an excellent job at decribing our complexity scale. Check it out:

http://discovermagazine.com/2013/march/7-monkey-face#.UTAFVPkS5sJ

 

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