If you’re like most OrganicAuthority.com readers, bats may not be your favorite creatures. But as someone dedicated to organic living and environmental awareness, you should know these small winged mammals play a vital role in global ecosystems and face threats from deforestation.

Earthwatch volunteers are traveling to Malaysia to study bats in the Krau Wildlife Reserve.

“This 30 million-year-old rainforest is a bat paradise,” says Dr. Tigga Kingston, an assistant professor of biology at Texas Tech University and principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Malaysian Bat Conservation project (pictured here holding a bat for measurement). “It is home to the greatest diversity of insect-eating bats in the world, with at least 60 species. When the fruit-eating bats are included, the species list tops 71 bats.”

For four years, Earthwatch teams have been helping Dr. Kingston monitor bats in Krau Wildlife Reserve, using “harp” traps to capture the flying mammals and banding them for further study. Volunteers gain a rare chance to explore parts of this ancient rainforest that are off-limits to tourists, and they gain a unique perspective on how important bats are.

“For me and the other volunteers on my expedition, this was an amazing opportunity to work with these animals up close,” says volunteer Ed Barker. “Bats are incredibly delicate, voracious insect eaters, with a highly sophisticated ability to move through the jungle. Helping to understand what role they play in forest ecosystems was really rewarding.”

Dr. Kingston recently summarized her four years of trapping at the 36th Annual North American Symposium on Bat Research, held Oct. 18–21. She reported nearly 16,000 bat captures at five sites—probably one the most intensive studies of bat “assemblages” in the world, including 38 species in six families.

Bat assemblages generally include all of the bats in a given area. Dr. Kingston reported that bat assemblages in Krau Wildlife Reserve vary drastically from one site to another, and from one time to another. This finding poses new challenges for scientists studying the evolution of bats, as well as those trying to conserve bat populations in the face of deforestation and other threats.

Bats are a key component of Malaysian biodiversity, also providing valuable pollination, seed dispersal and insect removal. Dr. Kingston’s continued efforts will help local resource managers better manage this ancient rainforest and the diversity of animals it supports.

“Earthwatch volunteers have been vital to the success of the project on so many levels,” she says. “Not only does their labor make a major contribution to the somewhat arduous art of bat-catching, but their enthusiasm, curiosity and appreciation buoys up the whole research team.”

Earthwatch teams will return to Malaysia to help Dr. Kingston next March, April and July. For more information about the Malaysian Bat Conservation project, click here.

And be sure to watch A Year on Earth, a two-part special that will debut on the Discovery Kids Channel on Dec.  3 and 10. It chronicles the adventures of three American teens who join Dr. Kingston in Malaysia, as well as Earthwatch research projects around the world.

Photo by Stephen Rossiter/Earthwatch