If you are interested in bats, you could find yourself discovering a bat that has never been discovered before and have it named after you! At Ngwenya Lodge, Nigel Fernsby found a bat that has never been found in South Africa . Also recently, Lientjie Cohen of the Mpumalanga Parks Board, found a colony of Midas free-tailed bats that have never been discovered this far south. The subject of bats is so understudied that many things are unknown about these incredible creatures but tremendous steps forward are being made by bat interest groups and individuals around the country.
On 12 October, 2004, Nigel Fernsby, chairman of the Gauteng and Northern Regions Bat Interest Group (GNoR BIG), was in Komatipoort at Ngwenya Lodge preparing for a documentary on a breeding colony of Sundevall's Leaf-nosed Bats. In a spare moment, he decided to pay a quick visit to the bat houses that are erected around the lodge.
Of the five bat houses erected, three had been occupied by Angolan Free-tailed Bats and two by bees. The largest bat house housed a huge colony of bats, easily numbering 2000. This particular colony had been in residence since 1996. Imagine.
Fernsby's surprise when he opened the bat house up and there was not a single Angolan Free-tailed Bat. Instead, tucked high up in a crevice was a single Yellow House Bat. He hastened to the next bat house. Instead of crowds of Free-tailed Bats, he found four Yellow House Bats scrambling upwards to try and get out of the way of harm's way.
But this time, Fernsby got a good look and what he saw made him very suspicious. These four bats looked like Yellow House Bats, but they were unusually big. It was therefore not surprising that they had displaced the Angolan Free-tailed Bats. In the third bat house, he found a single Yellow House Bat.
This was in keeping with Yellow House Bat behaviour as the males keep small harems. Any solitary males are usually juniors and 'gentlemen in waiting' so to speak. Back in Gauteng, Fernsby searched through available literature and what he found heightened his suspicions even further. He gathered a team of bat workers and returned to Mpumalanga. Koos de Wet, Lientjie Cohen (both of Mpumalanga Parks Board), Rose and Adam Palmer joined him.
They set up mist nets close to the bat houses at dusk. The weather conditions were favourable and at about 18h45 a thump was heard and the light of the torch revealed a big Yellow House Bat. They had indeed captured the first Giant Yellow House Bat Scotophilus nigrita, for South Africa.
Over the next 10 minutes, they caught four more out of a colony of five. They realised that they needed to collect every bit of information possible as this is a very poorly documented species of bat. They spent the next hour measuring forearms, examining their colouring, teeth and tragus, taking DNA samples from the wing membrane and weighing the bats. The bats weighed on average 84 grams, three times the weight of the standard Yellow House Bat. This makes it the second largest insectivorous bat in South Africa, the largest being the Commerson's Leaf-nosed Bat.
The group released three of the four and took a female back to Gauteng. She was duly named 'Girlie'. In the next couple of weeks, Girlie became somewhat of a celebrity. She attended the Bat Interest Group's committee meeting, was in turn visited by a PhD Zoologist from Cape Town who needed a DNA sample and she visited the taxonomist at the Transvaal Museum. During all of this time, she ate voraciously. Almost any flying beetle that was put into her cage was disposed of using her strong jaws, but all moths were eschewed.
After 22 days of 'scientific work' Girlie was released back into her territory in Komatipoort. The hard part of the exercise came when Fernsby had to select a specimen of the Giant Yellow House Bat for museum records. So whether you are an amateur or professional naturalist, it is worth remembering that it is easy to discover the unusual, as long as you possess an enquiring mind and a keen eye. There are thousands of bats in this area, and like Nigel, you too could discover something that is unknown to the scientific world.
For more information on bats, visit the GNoR BIG website: www.batsgauteng.org.za Bats are prolific in this area. This is very lucky for us humans because they are voracious feeders and one bat can consume up to 2000 insects a night. These include agricultural and household pests, such as mosquitoes. It makes sense therefore to encourage bats.
However, bats can become a nuisance when they move into buildings. If you have a problem with bats and would like to find out how to exclude them, but still retain their services as pest controllers, by getting them to move into a bat house, contact Lynn Maclachlan 072 817 8113. Remember, poisoning bats is illegal and carries a R 6000 fine. It is not the right thing to do as it is cruel and we all know that taking a link out of the eco-system is harmful.