When you go to the bathroom, a bat might go to boo

Imagine that you are in a research camp in the Tanzanian grasslands and you need to relieve yourself. You make your way to the nearby p...


Imagine that you are in a research camp in the Tanzanian grasslands and you need to relieve yourself. You make your way to the nearby pit toilet: a concrete slab with a small gate that opens into an eight-foot pit filled with human waste. You pull your pants down, squat, and do your business. Suddenly you realize that you are not alone. Maybe it’s a light gust of air, or something even more bodily.

“I had the soft caress of a bat wing against my butt while I was pooping,” said Leejiah Dorward, postdoctoral researcher at Bangor University in Wales.

In Tanzania, spaces under some pit latrines have become comfortable havens for roosting bats, according to an article published by Dr Dorward and colleagues in September in the African Journal of Ecology. Researchers have found that the rotten depths of the pits heat the air, and the concrete slab above the head keeps predators out. Even the occasional drop of droppings or aerial spray does not chase bats away, although they can scare off animals into flight.

“Suddenly you would feel a load up and you would throw yourself between your legs,” said Amy Dickman, senior researcher at the University of Oxford and director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania. “So you have this furry mammal that just flew in your behind.” Although Dr. Dickman was not involved in the research, his toilet was one of seven examined by Dr. Dorward.

Dr Dorward first encountered bats in 2015 at Dr Dickman’s research camp near Ruaha National Park (where he first felt the velvety kiss of furry wings on his behind), but bats can be familiar bathroom friends to anyone who has used a pit latrine. in parts of Africa.

Sospeter Kibiwot, a bat conservationist at the University of Eldoret in Kenya, first saw a bat when he was in primary school, an encounter that both frightened him and inspired to learn more about bats. “Since I was a child, I have spotted over 10 pit latrine dormitories,” Kibiwot wrote in an email. “All these latrines are not perches, but only a few. “

Members of the conservation organization Global South Bats have seen bats roosting in latrines in Zambia and Madagascar and in sewage systems in Mauritius, according to Angelica Menchaca, the group’s chief executive.

Realizing that the phenomenon seemed absent from the scientific literature, Dr. Dorward began inspecting pit toilets around the camp for potential occupants in 2017. His first method of surveillance was to photograph bats. His camera didn’t fit into the drop hole – an intentionally tiny opening to ensure humans didn’t fall through – so he had to disconnect the lens from the camera, pass the two pieces through the hole and twist them together without dropping anything.

“It was not an optimal way to do it,” said Dr. Dorward.

He then fashioned a less precarious strategy, inspired by a dental mirror. He taped a small mirror and a flashlight to slanted aluminum bars, allowing him to count all the perched bats, which clung to the wooden bars supporting the concrete slab.

Six of the seven toilets at the camp had bats. The oldest toilets, established seven or eight years before the survey, housed 9 to 13 bats. The newer toilets did not have bats. A toilet with just a foot or two between the hole and the mound of stools only had a few bats.

The researchers sent photos of the bats to Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago. Dr Patterson helped identify toilet dwellers as Nycteris, or split-faced bats (researchers also found a single heart-nosed bat in surveys).

Paul Webala, a wildlife biologist at Maasai Mara University in Kenya, who has an upcoming article on toilet bats in that country, observed the big-eared bat and the Egyptian bat in his own latrine surveys.

Dr Patterson said he suspected Nycteris bats might be the most dominant in latrines because their wing shape allows them to maneuver in tight spaces and penetrate through small holes. “There are a lot of bats that would like to roost there but are unable to do so due to their flight mechanics,” he said.

While some bats thrive by building outhouse houses, the proximity to humans leaves other species at a loss. “Urbanization is endangering most bat species,” said Danilo Russo, University of Naples environmentalist Federico II. Other researchers said bats might even use the latrines as a refuge from their endangered desert. “Some species of bats live with humans as a last resort,” said Mr. Kibiwot, the bat ecologist.

For anyone unfamiliar with the design of a drip toilet, the published material included a hand-drawn graphic, featuring a pile of rotting garbage, two bats, and a human figure. “The crouching type is totally redundant for the paper, but felt great,” said Dr Dorward, who drew the sketch.

Fittingly, this illustration was labeled “Figure 2” in the document, an unwitting tribute to what the crouching guy can do, right above the bats.

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