Team Studying Bats In Sri Lanka Makes Potentially Rare Find

By Christine Hogg

It was an incredible display of nature, and to have the opportunity to be there to witness and photograph it was nothing less of magical.

In mid-August, Deirdre Leowinata and Vincent Luk packed their belongings alongside Dr. Burton Lim, Assistant Curator of Mammalogy at the Royal Ontario Museum, to depart on a 4-week expedition into the tropics of southern Sri Lanka. As recent graduates of the ROM’s Environmental Visual Communications program, Leowinata and Luk had been selected to survey the biodiversity of bat species present on the island.

Dr. Burton Lim holds a bat during the capture and release stage of the surveying process. While bats may seem very wild, they are actually quite approachable mammals. Photograph by deirdre leowinata.

Dr. Burton Lim holds a bat during the capture and release stage of the surveying process. While bats may seem very wild, they are actually quite approachable mammals. Photograph by deirdre leowinata.

Since a comprehensive survey in the 1930’s, bats have faced many challenges including habitat loss and disease, which has disrupted their migration patterns. Led by a team of scientists including Dr. Lim, internationally renowned bat scientist Dr. Brock Fenton (Western University) and Echolocation Specialist Dr. Signe Brinkløv (University of Southern Denmark), the group planned on learning more about the current state of bat species in the region. 

“Migration isn’t usually a significant factor in tropical places, because food is available year-round,” explained Dr. Lim. “Therefore bats don't need to travel far, but destruction of habitats can force them to seek out other, similar areas to live.”

Travelling on foot amongst a wealth of lush biodiversity, boasting exotic wildlife such as Asian leopards and bird-eating spiders, the team made their way through eight regions of Sri Lanka, before reaching a section of vast caves. Stepping into complete darkness, Leowinata recalls a whoosh of air as thousands of velvety wings dove and circled around her. Shining her flashlight, she saw a series of tiny eyes staring back at her, and as thousands of bats stirred from their slumber, the team set up their cameras and got to work.

Dr. Burton Lim sets up a mist net in Sri Lanka to aid in the capture of wild bats. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEIRDRE LEOWINATA.

Dr. Burton Lim sets up a mist net in Sri Lanka to aid in the capture of wild bats. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEIRDRE LEOWINATA.

Along with a loss of habitat, one of the greatest strains on bat populations throughout the world is attributed to the negative stigmas and speculations surrounding the species. Using photography as a storytelling tool, Leowinata and Luk documented their time in those caves and in the rainforests of Sri Lanka, as an attempt to educate the public on the importance in Sri Lanka as a whole.

“In each location, we had the opportunity to interact with a variety of new community members. These interactions are always opportunities for teaching, and bats make especially good species to engage the public with because of their charisma,” Leowinata said. 

A member of the community examines a captured bat in Sri Lanka. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEIRDRE LEOWINATA.

A member of the community examines a captured bat in Sri Lanka. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEIRDRE LEOWINATA.

During the trek across Sri Lanka’s captivating landscape, Luk and Leowinata photographed the bats in their natural habitats, and successfully documented one of the most crucial stages in the surveying process, which involves the capture and release of the mammals.

“We mainly focused on capturing the scientists in action, while telling the story of their work and research,” said Luk. “The setup consisted of several flashes synced to a motion sensor, that would trigger when the bat took flight. It took a lot of patience and multiple tries to capture the bat in frame, properly exposed, and in focus.”

The perfect capture of a Horseshoe Bat in flight. PHOTOGRAPH BY VINCENT LUK

The perfect capture of a Horseshoe Bat in flight. PHOTOGRAPH BY VINCENT LUK

Across rolling hills and misty mountains, through humid jungles and dry deserts, the team successfully identified 16 bat species of an estimated 30 thought to be living throughout Sri Lanka. Perhaps the most captivating moment of the trip came during a visit to a major tourist town called Sigiriya, where the team discovered what may have been a Rousettus aegyptiacus, better known as an Egyptian Fruit Bat. Though DNA results are still pending, if confirmed, the presence of this species could indicate a pivotal point in assessing the evolving migration patterns of bats throughout Sri Lanka, as the species has previously only been seen as far as Northern India.

After 27 exhilarating days spent in the field and an accumulated 2,500 km journey, Dr. Lim, Leowinata and Luk and their fellow researchers said goodbye to the beauty that is Sri Lanka. By engaging in photography, both Luk and Leowinata were able to demonstrate the importance of conservation efforts for bats, which was, for Luk, a highlight of the trip.

“It was an incredible display of nature, and to have the opportunity to be there, witness and photograph it was nothing less than magical.” 

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