El Paso Zoo is helping to save an endangered bat

Lesser Long-nosed Bat feeding of Agave blossom.

By Dr. Kristen Lear, Endangered Species Interventions Specialist at Bat Conservation International

2020 was an extreme drought year for West Texas, and the state is expected to get even hotter and drier in coming years. Increased drought duration and intensity spell trouble for many El Paso and West Texas native plants and animals, including pollinators that are critical to ecosystem function.

Leptonycteris yerbabuenae with pitaya pollen.

Texas is home to the Mexican long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis), one of only three pollinating bat species found in the US and the only endangered bat in Texas. Pregnant females migrate over 700 miles between their mating roost in central Mexico and Emory Cave in Big Bend National Park, where they give birth to and raise their single pup in the summer. During their migration, and especially while in Texas, Mexican long-nosed bats rely on the sweet nectar from the flowers of Agave plants (Agave spp.) for energy. The bats, in turn, are vital pollinators of these iconic Texas plants.

Unfortunately, foraging habitat across the range of the Mexican long-nosed bat has been degraded due to development, ranching, agave harvesting, and other land use changes, leaving many of the bats’ foraging sites incapable of sustaining bat populations. Increased drought brought about by climate change can also reduce the number of agaves that flower in any year and potentially create mismatches between the timing of the bats’ migration and nectar availability, threatening this plant-pollinator relationship and the survival of the bats.

Through their Agave Restoration Initiative, Bat Conservation International (BCI) is protecting and restoring foraging habitat for Mexican long-nosed bats, particularly agaves, around the bats’ roosts and migratory corridor. By growing and planting native agaves across the Southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, BCI is creating a restored and climate-resilient nectar corridor for these endangered bats. These agaves will also provide food and shelter for other native Texas wildlife, including some backyard favorites such as Black-chinned hummingbirds.

The El Paso Zoo is partnering with BCI to bring this agave restoration initiative to the Trans-Pecos in 2021, the launch year of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. At the Zoo, several agaves are already growing near the American alligator exhibit in the Americas area. These agaves are several years old and are likely to shoot up their giant flowering stalks (up to 30 feet) soon to feed local pollinators. In collaboration with BCI, a new pollinator garden focused on agaves will be created to highlight several native and ornamental agave species and their importance for nectar-feeding bats and other wildlife of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Zoo and BCI also hope to work together on future agave planting events with zoo staff and volunteers.

To help BCI and the Zoo in their efforts to protect the Mexican long-nosed bat, join our citizen science project to locate agave stands in the Trans-Pecos through the iNaturalist and Survey123 apps and monitor agave flowering over the spring/summer through the National Phenology Network’s “Flowers for Bats” campaign. By participating in these projects, you can help us learn more about local agaves and the timing of their flowering, which will guide our restoration efforts. If you would like to participate or learn more about BCI’s Agave Restoration Initiative, contact Dr. Kristen Lear (klear@batcon.org) at BCI.

A number of adult agaves are growing at the Zoo. When they reach this size some could bloom later this year.

Photos- Bat Conservation International
Top image and Cover-Leptonycteris yerbabuenae by Bruce D Taubert, Bat Conservation International

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