For two and a half months, I stayed in encampments like this one, under the evergreen canopy of the Amazon rain forest, alongside an international team of field ecologists. We were working the night shift to study one of the most diverse and fascinating groups of mammals - bats.
As the debate over the minimum size for nature reserves heated among the scientific community in the 70's, a young conservationist decided to take the matter into more practical terms. By isolating patches of forest with different sizes, Thomas Lovejoy kickstarted the largest-scale ecological experiment up to date - the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project.
The set he picked for his endeavor was nothing less than the biologically megadiverse lowland terra firme rainforest, in the Brazilian Amazon. Thirty years later, the project continues to yield precious insights into how plant and animal communities respond to forest fragmentation.
The team I'm working with is solely and enthusiastically dedicated to studying the long-term impacts of habitat fragmentation on tropical bats. Until the end of April I'll be joining biologists Ricardo, Adrià, Fábio and Gilberto in their efforts to understand how to better conserve these wonderfully diverse animals.
Studying bats is a difficult task. Bound to the dark, they can weigh as little as 5 grams and fly higher than 50 meters. Whenever the rain softens, hundreds of them forage the forest by night. But if we were to rely on our senses we would only aspire to see them for a split second as they dash by or momentarily hear their characteristic yet discrete calls.
To be able to identify which species live inside the fragments, Ricardo and Fábio set up at least fourteen nets every night, from 6pm to midnight. "For the first time, we'll be able to observe how bat communities have behaved in 35 years of isolation". Ricardo who has been in Amazonia for two years, also adds that "it's incredible to be part of a project with a study area as large as the island of Madeira!".
The sites match those of Erica Sampaio, a scientist from Tübingen University who led a similar study in the 90's. This will allow Ricardo and his team to also compare how 15 years of forest regrowth have affected bat communities. "Changes are already evident. Many species of gleaners, which are more sensitive to fragmentation, are coming back."
A few families of bats however have an extremely acute sense of echolocation - to them nets are simply too obvious barriers. To overcome their anonymity, researchers rely on alternative approaches. This is Adrià's area of expertise.
At precisely 6pm, Adrià turns his headlamp off and his ultra-sound detector on. It will record the call emitted by a wide array of species, many of them insectivores of the most elusive kind. "You may find this a little less exciting than the nets" told me Adrià when we first teamed up. "But since we stand still most of the time, you do get to see more animals."
Recording along transects is only a small part of Adrià's quest. To achieve his goals, Adrià must resort to the latest technology in bat research - automatic detectors. Installing these devices usually means walking for hours to reach remote parts of the forest and leave them working for several nights in a row. "Very little is known about the ecology and behaviour of insectivores and much less about the long term impacts of fragmentation. These detectors allow me to record and identify almost every bat that forages the forest, including species that fly high above the canopy."