By the light of the night

Journalists experiment with infrared imaging in the Monteverde cloud forest with Costa Rican bat species, and discover an unexpected reality. 

By Paige Blankenbuehler

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — My steps are guided by the glow of flashlights faintly illuminating the sloshy ground as I venture into the forest. Tonight, we search for bats, and even though my eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark, I have something that has.

We’re journalists armed with infrared camera equipment, and we’re anticipating the opportunity to try it in the field in the company of bats.

Infrared technology hasn’t often been used in formal studies by local experts or in practice by professional journalists. I see it as a ripe opportunity to push our skills to a new level.

My fellow Missouri School of Journalism colleagues and I are lucky to be in Monteverde’s Dwight & Rachel Crandell Memorial Reserve in the company of Kelly LaVal, a local bat expert and daughter of world-renowned bat scientist Richard LaVal. Tonight, she appropriately wears a batman sweatshirt. She speaks with a joking casualness as she pulls bats one by one out of a cloth bag to show us.

For all intents and purposes, she’s Bat Woman. Raised by a bat scientist, she has ventured into bat habitats for as long as she can remember and been drawn to the creatures. She handles them comfortably, like a jovial backslapping older sister rather than a sheltering mother.

She knows every species’ quirks, diet and behavior and delivers the information as if performing a stand-up comedy routine. In the foreground I tinker with infrared imaging (it’s downloaded onto my iPhone 5; a free software, but with a $300 FLIR One hard-case attachment). I’m snapping a photo here and there, trying to spot something in the lush canopy above (so far nothing).

Somehow she makes mundane facts prone to teasing: the Artibeus toltecus bat has a strong upper body, and as she stretches its wings, she jokes about the bat’s “macho man” appearance. She turns to the women in the group and asks if they like its hairy legs and armpits. Schoolgirl chuckles.

Win de Backer, a Monteverde bat biologist, is also there. He’s tall with shaggy brunette hair that’s peeking out from under his headlamp. He takes off toward the bat nets to see the specimens caught there, and I follow him with the infrared camera, ready to press the record button.

The large nets are strewn in a handful of places through the bat reserve, established near a strip of Monteverde heavily traveled by tourists, researchers and students. As we approach, we find three squirming bats stuck in the barely visible thin, black netting.

Mist netting, as the experts say, is very effective. In this case, the bats’ strongest assets fail them. The nets are so thin that by the time the bat’s sonar detects their presence, it’s too late. Their vision is better than human sight (a little-known fact), yet the mesh nets trick the otherwise deft flyers. They hang helplessly until a scientist removes them.

De Backer plucks them off quickly and puts them in a bag dangling from his waist.

The passion of de Backer and LaVal for the night mammals soaks into me. Without bats, human life would be different. Some bats are pollinators, and more than 500 species of fruit in Costa Rica depend solely on pollination from bats, including mainstays like mangos and guava. Tequila, too, only exists because bats pollinate agave.

Bat expert Kelly LaVal in infrared light holding one of the smaller, more common fruit bat species, the Dermanura toltecus | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler

Bat expert Kelly LaVal in infrared light holding one of the smaller, more common fruit bat species, the Dermanura toltecus | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler

De Backer returns to LaVal with a sack of squeaking nocturnal creatures. Most of the bats are small. She takes each one out and cradles it in the hammock-like space between her thumb and index finger.

Some of the other bats are a little larger. Most of the ones caught in the nets of the Crandell reserve are fruit bats, but a few are carnivorous. The Platyrrhinus vittatus, one of the forest’s larger fruit bats — is the celebrity of this particular night.

LaVal’s thumb drapes over its auburn fur, and as it scurries uncomfortably toward the center of her palm her four remaining fingers wrap around like a clam closing. Its head — a furry round ball — and its shining eyes are all that is visible.

The Platyrrhinus has sharp teeth — just like in the horror movies — and it lurches at LaVal’s hand trying to bite her thick gloves.

Once it settles down, the dusty brown bat vibrates slightly in her hand as if powered by a dying battery. Two little flies scurry around its face and over its eyes without so much as a flinch from the bat. A white stripe extends down its back from the nape of its neck to its tail.

“This is a beautiful bat,” LaVal says. She is excited to see this one in the field.

Wearing Kelly LaVal's handler's gloves, I hold the Platyrrhinus in my left hand while snapping a photo with my right. The Platyrrhinus has a white stripe down its back and two on its face. | Photo by: Paige Blankenbuehler

Wearing Kelly LaVal’s handler’s gloves, I hold the Platyrrhinus in my left hand while snapping a photo with my right. The Platyrrhinus has a white stripe down its back and two on its face. | Photo by: Paige Blankenbuehler

I find it especially beautiful — and cooperative.

I hold the Platyrrhinus in my right hand while taking photos of it with my left (I can’t help but gawk at its tiny, sharp teeth). I ask LaVal if we can position it on a branch of a nearby tree — she doubts it will work. Most of the other bats flew away in a hurry, glad to be free of the alien captors. But this specimen takes to the branch willingly and hangs there for the next 15 minutes while a frenzy of infrared camera experimentation ensues.

It turned out to be a fruitful experience. I learned how to use the new FLIR One infrared imaging system for journalistic practices. I quickly figured out how to capture the quick movement of the bats in the night.

The scientific community, too, apparently can benefit from these images.

Just a few minutes later, I’m sitting with LaVal in the main lobby of the Monteverde Institute with a regular camera set-up. I wait for her anxiously, holding onto her glove from the field as a ransom for an interview. Soon she arrives and we start discussing some of the infrared photos.

The first shot shows the bat dangling from the branch. It’s taken from the back and its wings wrap around its body.

“This photo is actually very interesting because it shows the blood flow,” LaVal says.

The Platyrrhinus hangs onto a nearby tree branch in the Monteverde bat reserve | Photo by: Paige Blankenbuehler

The Platyrrhinus hangs onto a nearby tree branch in the Monteverde bat reserve | Photo by: Paige Blankenbuehler

The shoulder blades are the hottest part of the photo — signified by the glowing red — and where the bat uses most of its muscle to fly.

LaVal looks at two other photos, but one particularly captures her attention.

The spectrum of infrared imaging shows temperature by corresponding color. Red and yellow show the hot points; white is the hottest. Purple shows the coldest areas and black represents empty space. The features of the subject are washed out since temperature rules the form.

Interestingly, the stripe of the Platyrrhinus stands out in both visible and infrared light. The stripe signifies a “white hot” area in the infrared photo, a warmer coloration than the rest of its back. Since the stripe stands out in the image, it seems that there’s a distinct temperature change there, LaVal points out.

“To tell you the truth, I have no idea why that is,” LaVal says.

As our conversation ends, I tuck my flashlight into my pack and give LaVal back her heavy duty, bat-handling glove. I write her email in my reporter’s notebook to send the photo along to her cohort of researchers.

The night winds down as our group walks back to our lodge, with flashlights faintly leading the way.

Tonight, our journalism reached a new level: To infrared light and beyond.

This article was written in Monteverde on January 7.

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