University of São Paulo: Researchers create largest database of interactions between bats and plants

USP researchers, in partnership with other institutions, created the largest bank with scientific information on bat interactions with plants, focusing on species that feed on fruits and nectar. “These wild animals, threatened by the loss or fragmentation of their habitat, play a crucial role in the dynamics of nature. They interact with different ecosystems, including being responsible for seed dispersal and plant pollination, environmental services that result in the maintenance and regeneration of forests, sandbanks and savannas, in addition to being pest predators and disease vectors”, explains to Jornal da USP the researcher Marco Mello, professor at the Department of Ecology, at the Institute of Biosciences (IB) at USP and coordinator of the NeoBat Interactions.

Aimed at researchers in the area, the database was built in data paper format – with open code for new insertions – and so far has about 2,571 records. Altogether, interactions between 93 species of bats of the family Phyllostomidae (bats with a nose leaf) and 501 species of plants from 68 families were included. These interactions were recorded in 169 scientific studies carried out from southern Argentina to the southern US, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico and other Latin countries. “NeoBat Interactions is by far the most extensive database on ecological interactions in geographic and taxonomic terms [biological classification] ,” says the researcher. In January, NeoBat was officially launched in an article published in Ecology magazine , whose first author is the biologist Guillermo Florez-Montero, a doctoral student at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) and co-supervised by Professor Marco Mello.

NeoBat: distribution of sampling sites

The researcher explains that one of the challenges faced by scientists in this area is obtaining reliable data on the ecological interactions of bats. “In addition to having to find them in the wild, at night or at twilight, you have to identify them, describe them, and get direct or indirect evidence of their interactions,” he says.

The new database was assembled by a multidisciplinary team of scientists from different countries, including students, postdocs and researchers. The starting point was another database made available online in 2002, by Cullen Geiselman, from the Bat Eco-Interactions Project (Houston, Texas, United States), whose content had a didactic-educational purpose and to arouse curiosity about these animals. wild. “We filter, review, and organize the content of this database according to best practices in data science: sampling for at least one year, reproducibly described data collection methods, and confirmed access to the original publication. We also organized the data so that it could be easily used in scientific analysis,” says Mello.

All the scientific knowledge produced in this area was scattered in hundreds of articles, books and theses in different countries, which also made it difficult to have a panoramic view of the interactions. “The data paper format allowed the gathering of all this data produced in 70 years (from 1957 to 2007) in a single database, which can be updated by scientists from anywhere in the world”, reports Florez-Montero. Currently, the researchers are working to update the database to include investigations carried out up to the current year.

Brazilian bats
The majority of NeoBat Interactions records are of Brazilian species, around 34%. Of these, the vast majority have a diet based on fruits, 75.1% are frugivores. The remaining 24.9% are nectarivores, which feed on the nectar of flowers. Many of these bats can consume both types of food and still eat other things like pollen, leaves, seeds, insects, frogs, mice and birds.

Most of the bat species included in the database occur in all Brazilian regions, in different types of environments, from forests to caatinga, says the researcher. The highest concentration of species occurs in the Atlantic Forest and Amazon biomes. They use a huge variety of shelters to live in, and can be found inside caves and tree hollows, hanging underneath or sleeping inside leaves, and even occupying human constructions such as bridges and roofs.

The bat genera best represented in the database are Artibeus (28% of all records), Carollia (24%), Sturnira (10.1%) and Glossophaga (8.8%). Carollia perspicillata (187), Artibeus lituratus (125), Artibeus jamaicensis (94), Glossophaga soricina (86) and Artibeus planirostris (74) were the bat species with the widest diets (different plants) recorded based on the number of species. vegetable.

Among the plants, the families were Moraceae (17%), Piperaceae (15.4%), Urticaceae (9.2%) and Solanaceae (9%). Plants of the genera Cecropia (46), Ficus (42), Piper (40), Solanum (31) and Vismia (27) showed the highest number of interactions. “These are pioneer plants, that is, they are among the first to grow in an environment that has been destroyed by human action or natural causes. Bats eat the fruits of these plants and then scatter the seeds over huge areas, especially when defecating during flight or resting between activities.

Fake news: vampire bats
Professor Mello said he is often asked about bats that suck the blood of animals and that could potentially suck the blood of humans. He explains that this possibility is very remote because blood is not the main diet of the overwhelming majority of these wild animals. Of the 181 species of bats currently recorded in Brazil (see the updated list on the website of the Brazilian Society for the Study of Chiropterans , only three are hematophagous: the common vampire bat ( Desmodus rotundus ), the white ( Diaemus youngi ) and the hairy-legged vampire bat ( Diphylla ecaudata). “The distorted fame that has been created around them may be due to the fact that they transmit rabies, but any other mammal [dogs and cats, for example] can also transmit rabies”, he adds. “We don’t need to be afraid of bats, we need to respect them and let them live in peace in their natural habitat,” she says.

Environmental services provided by bats

According to Professor Mello, bats provide several environmental services and it is important to preserve them. One of the examples cited by the biologist is the control of populations of agricultural pests. The presence of these wild animals, which feed on insects (moths, locusts and mosquitoes), in rural areas saves farmers billions by reducing the use of pesticides. Mello also recalls that bats are inspiring sources of scientific research and that much of what we have today in terms of technology was bioinspired by the behavior, morphology and physiology of these wild animals. The medical ultrasound device, for example, was based on the biosonar of bats, a sophisticated ability they have to detect the position and assess the texture of objects or animals through the emission of ultrasonic waves.

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