Meet Bat Expert Katy Hinman
Katharine Hinman, 2003

My name is Katy Hinman and I am the Bat Project Coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. That means that all I do all day is think about bats! Here in Arizona we have 28 different species of bats, but I know that you folks are interested in one in particular, the lesser long-nosed bat. The lesser long-nosed bat is our only endangered species of bat, so we?ve been working hard to get to know more about it. Nectar-feeding bats, like the lesser long-nosed bat (or Lepto, as we like to call it), are important players out here in the desert. They pollinate the flowers of saguaro cacti, organ pipe cacti, and century plants. They also eat the fruit and spread the seeds of the saguaro and organ pipe. Since lots of other desert animals depend on these plants, the Leptos can be very important to the health of the whole desert system!

Even though I love all bats, I have a special place in my heart for the Leptos. I even did all my PhD research on them and our other species of nectar-feeding bat, the Mexican long-tongued bat.

Q. How did you get interested in bats?
I used to work at a summer camp where we would take the campers caving. We always had to tell them a little about bats in case we saw some, so they wouldn?t get nervous or disturb the bats or anything. The director of the camp was a big bat fan so she would always tell us these neat facts about bats to pass on. I started reading some of her books about bats and pretty soon I was hooked! There are so many different kinds of bats and they do so many different things you never run out of things to find out about them.

Q. What are you studying for your PhD?
As I write this in April, 2003, I am just about to finish up my PhD in Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Even though I took all my classes up in New York, I decided to do my field work out here in Arizona, studying Leptos and their relationship to the century plant.

Q. What are you trying to find out?
I started out thinking I would build on some previous work that had been done on Leptos and try to find out how they are helping the century plants reproduce (how they move pollen around between plants). But when I got out to my field site I found that I had picked a weirdo population of bats to work on! These bats weren?t doing any of the things that they were supposed to!

Q. What went wrong?
Well, I don?t think anything actually went wrong. I think we are just too quick to decide we know everything there is to know about an animal. Nature is full of surprises! One of the things that I found was that there were bats in southeastern Arizona in the spring, before the century plants start blooming. In central Arizona, pregnant females visits saguaro and organ pipe cacti in the spring, but there are no saguaro or organ pipe in southeastern Arizona! And these weren?t pregnant females. In fact, they weren?t females at all. It turns out there?s a colony of bachelor males living in the Chiricahua Mountains in the spring before the females and their babies show up in the late summer.

Q. What do they eat if there aren?t flowers blooming?
Well one of the things I found out is that, luckily, the bats are much better at finding blooming flowers than I am! I couldn?t find anything for them to eat, but when I looked for pollen on their fur and in their feces (yes, I picked apart bat poo!), I found that they were picking up pollen. They were able to find century plants even when I couldn?t. Good thing I?m not a bat! But I also found that they were getting some of their protein from insects, probably ones that they could find right around the flowers. And they were visiting hummingbird feeders.

Q. Bats visit Hummingbird feeders?
That?s right! In the town near where I did my field work, there are tons of bird-watchers. They love to put up feeders and watch the hummingbirds come to drink. Well, Leptos are the bat equivalent of hummingbirds! So at night, if there?s any sugar water left in the feeders, the Leptos will come swooping in and drink it all up! Some of the folks in town would sit out on their porches at night and watch the bats come in, just like they sat out during the day to watch the birds. Of course, some folks thought it was pretty annoying that the bats emptied out their feeders every night, because it meant they had to get up early the next morning to fill them back up.

Q. So how do you find all this stuff out?
I use a lot of different techniques to find out what the bats are doing. Sometimes I put small radio transmitters on the bats. Then, when I let them go I can follow them around with a receiver and listen for the signal the transmitter is putting out. When I hear the signal, I can tell where the bat is. The problem is that these bats fly fast! Lots of times, I would let the bat go and it would fly off and I?d never find it again. So I had to do other things as well. I caught bats in mist-nets (those are very fine nets that you spread out someplace where the bats will be flying). I looked on their fur for pollen. And I looked at their feces. Catching bats is lots of fun, but I think the coolest thing I got to do was use night-vision video cameras to watch the bats flying around. I could videotape a century plant or a hummingbird feeder and watch the bats as they came in to drink, so I could see what they were doing when they were acting naturally!

Q. What have you learned?
The most important thing I?ve learned is that we never know it all! Every time we think we have something figured out, we find out that it?s only the tip of the iceberg. There will always be questions to ask and answer. Bats are fascinating animals and the more I learn about them, the more I want to know!

Try This! Leptos Up Close and Personal
  • View Katy's video clips. Her comments will help you understand these fabulous sights: bats pouring out of the roosting cave at night, Katy netting a bat for study, bats visiting a century plant and getting nectar from agaves, bats visiting a hummingbird feeder, bats with tummies full of nectar, and more!
  • View the Lepto Photo Gallery where Katy tells you about beautiful photos of bats nectaring and pollinating.