S4E39 Rodrigo Medellín is Mexico's very own 'Bat Man'. Since he first kept vampire bats in his bathroom as a child, Rodrigo has dedicated his life to saving them. On the evening of the 2022 UK National Bat Conference, Steve sits down with Rodrigo and asks him what it felt like to succeed in taking the lesser long nosed bat off the endangered species list and what it felt like to watch the bat volcano of Calakmul for the first time.
National Geographic Explorer at Large Rodrigo Medellín
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Welcome back to BatChat from the bat to Conservation Trust the podcast for anyone who loves bats. As you know by now we're bringing you stories from the world of bats. And we have a great story for you today. I'm Steve Roe. I'm an ecologist as well as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust, you can join the conversation online using the hashtag BatChat. This week, we have a really special guest in 2014, the BBCs Natural World Series brought as a documentary of one man's mission to save Mexico's bats, as well as its most famous export tequila. In this interview recorded at the National Bat Conference back in September, I started by asking Rodrigo Medellin, if he was looking forward to opening the UK National Bank conference the following day as the Keynote SpeakerRodrigo Medellin:
Well, of course, it's an incredible honour and a pleasure for me to come and give the keynote to the national bat conference of the United Kingdom. It's an incredible pleasure and an honour. But it's also true that it's, it's been long coming. We started planning this in 2019 was when they invited me. And then 2020 We all know what happened. And then 2021 came around and nothing happened. I gave actually a zoom talk for your online National Bat Conference in 2020. And it's not fun. I'm sorry. It's not fun. Nothing like being with real people. Yeah, so so this is this is this is finally the time that I can meet you all be with you talk bats into the wee hours of the night and so on.Steve Roe:
So I know everyone's very excited, because you are the Batman in Mexico, which came about through a documentary that was aired in 2014. That documentary that was narrated by David Attenborough. How long in the making, was that was that programme?Unknown:
Oh, well, I don't know how long is your, your podcast? Let me tell you how it came to be. I won the Whitley Gold Award, which is a big recognition for conservation, biodiversity conservation, in 2012. And for that, David Attenborough prepares a very brief three minute long video on the winner. And just hearing David Attenborough Say my name, Rodrigo. Oh, my God, my heart was jumping out of my chest. So then I came to, to accept the award. And I told Edward Whitley, I said, Do you think he will come? And he said, Well, he I don't know we I always invite him he sometimes come he sometimes doesn't come out. Right. So here I am. In the in the pre ceremony reception, talking to Lady, I forget her name. And, and, and then out of the corner of my eye, I see David Attenborough walking, and I turn into the most pathetic Justin Bieber fan. And I fall silent. he's there, he's okay. So then I go, we go into the ceremony and beginning of the ceremony I have Edward Whitley Princess Anne. And David, in the first role on my knees starts, of course, trembling. So then after, I have incredible opportunity of meeting David, and we sat together, one on one for about an hour and a half, two hours or something that I thought was the most golden time of my life, even if my wife is listening. Then Then after that hour and a half, he said, Well, I don't have any more power in BBC. But whatever little power I have gone to invest in us doing a documentary we Alright, so next evening, then a crew of the BBC shows up and they connect me and they say, Okay, we're going to do a documentary. So we're going to be in touch and we're going to plan it and so on. So from beginning to end, it's April 2012. To the final wrap up happened in June, July of 2013. Okay. But the actual filming occurred over four months. And we went all the way through from extreme southern Mexico to extreme northern Mexico, filming all kinds of things from carnivorous bats to vampire bats to less along those bats. So then after that they they went into post production. And then they flew me over again to for the, for the taping of David narrating the thing. And of course, that was another incredibly wonderful, amazing experience. And since then we have real correspondence between David and I, he doesn't do email or WhatsApp or anything. He does letters across the Atlantic way the seal with a stamp? Am I do too to so so I have like my letters exchange with him and which is amazing.Steve Roe:
Well, if when you next write to him, get him on this podcast that'd be amazing. So I mean, one of those species that was featured on that film was the last along those paths. And I guess that was a heavily featured species, because that's one of the ones that migrates to the west coast of Mexico. That migratory route, you've discovered that yourself from 20 years worth of work, how did you go about finding where the bats migrate? And how much work we went into? And how did you do it? Well,Unknown:
it's been a very long time, we started working with the lesser long nosed bats in the 80s 1983, and 84. We did all of the surveys, and we found out that the species was endangered. So we listed the species as endangered in the United States in 1988, as threatened in Mexico in 1994. And then we started a recovery plan, identifying we knew from old that that they were migratory, but we didn't really know, you know, how far from where, through where, or why, when, and so on. So a little while later, we've been putting the pieces together to understand what drives the migration. And it turns out that one of the big lessons that we learned, it's that these bots, not all of them migrate, the males do not migrate. And from the females, only half of them migrate, and the other half stays in central southern Mexico, and they give birth in the winter, whereas the migratory group, gives birth in the summer in the Sonoran Desert. So all of these little things started coming into place. At the same time, we listed the 13th largest colonies in Mexico, and we started monitoring, documenting their population levels, up and down and up and down with you know, infrared video on so on. And, of course, a lot of environmental education a lot. And then starting to protect each case, one by one. Within 10 years, we've seen that all of the 13 populations had a stabilised or continue to grow. And we started finding new colonies, which was completely, completely unexpected for me. I mean, in fact, one of the new colonies, this was, this was a this is a guy that I've known since I was a teenager, I started going to that cave when I was 14, or 15. And it's never had less along those bands. So then we are in the midst of filming the Batman. And two hurricanes move the bats around, so we lose them. We don't do know where they are. And one of my students who's working on vampire bats in eastern Mexico in this same cave, she calls me and she says Dr. Medellin, you know, I hear that you're trying to find where the lesser long nose, but let me tell you that they're here. I said, No, no, no, no, you don't do this to me. You have no idea. There's no less along those paths there. So go back and hit the books and learn about the species that you're working on. Because there's no less than orange button that gave when she goes, but Dr. Medellin they're here, and in big numbers that I said, No. It's been 30 years that I've been visiting that cave and they're not there. But they're here, okay, is it okay? They're okay, they're there, then don't go back into the cave. And I'm going to move my two crews of students from different places in Mexico and the BBC. And we're going to converge in that cave. In two days. I'll see you then two days don't go in. Alright. So we go there. And I go there by myself. And I find that 1000s and 1000s of letters along those paths there. So we know that there's new new called new colonies that opened the door, the stability and the growth and the new colonies and the actual protection of all of those caves. made it so that we have a platform Long to to announce that the species had recovered. So we announced that in the midst of a film to win 2013, that the species was recovered. And now it's not an endangered species in Mexico anymore. And the USD listed in 2017. So it's now recovered species.Steve Roe:
I mean, as you just said, you know, that was the first species to be removed from the endangered species list, and the first species in Mexico to be officially saved. How did that feel to have that announcement made?Rodrigo Medellin:
Oh, my God, well, I have to tell you that that's a dream come true. That's a dream come true. For every biologist in the world, you hope to see within your lifetime, a species that you've devoted decades or years or whatever, delisted. So this was an amazing opportunity. And you know, I continue to celebrate and everything but I do not stop worrying about them. And I'm not going to stop working with them. Once we we delisted them. Then we started working to secure the ecosystem services they provide, which is pollination. And that is how we launched the bat friendly tequila and mezcal programme two years later. And now that programme is growing everywhere. And everybody loves those bats. I wonder whatSteve Roe:
from the last couple of decades of, well, more than two decades of work, is there one particular memory that stands out for you.Rodrigo Medellin:
There's lots and lots of memories, but you know that the one that comes back time and again time and again time and again and it repeats itself, with new every new cohort of students is their look of amazement and passion when they first get to see the lesser known as many times it's the first part that they've seen in their lives, and I put them in their hands and they go crazy. And that look in their eyes. And that passion that I see is what feeds me. This is what I'm thriving on. And sort of vampire of young energy, you know, that is how I I recall.Steve Roe:
A lot of our listeners here in the UK won't have seen what lesser long nosed bats look like you want to try and describe what they look like which I know is difficult to do, but you want to give it a go.Unknown:
Absolutely. Absolutely. The the lesser long nosed bat is one of the most personable bands that you will ever meet. It's got a small pair of ears. It's got a long snout. It's got a very long term tongue. But the most amazing things think about them is a temper. They're absolutely kind they will never let alone as bad will never try to bite you compared to your pipistrelle. You know the lesser long nosed bats simply do not bite. They don't. They don't you just take them out of the out of the net. And they go oh, what is this? Okay, all right. Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead and rub me rub me rub me and you rub them and you take the wing punches and everything and then you you put the pit tags, you put the chips in them, and they're not biting. They're amazing. So they're like an ounce kind of bad. 28 grammes, something like that. Very lightly, brown grey huge colour. No, no tail membrane and no tail to speak of. And, you know, big eyes, big, inquisitive eyes, which always endear anybody and everyone who has seen the list alone knows, but it turns into their favourite, butSteve Roe:
is it your favourite bat?Unknown:
No. No, let me tell you. I mean, for example, National Geographic brings us Explorer's for what they call a closer look, which is basically you are asked to come to explain what you want to do next. And this is this is in 2015 that they call me for a closer look. And I said, Okay, I know what I want to do. And I know that every bat biologist in the world wants to do the same thing. We all want to study the largest bat in the new world. Vampyrum spectrum. The [great] false vampire bat is an amazing species that is the largest bird in the continent. That is a carnivore. But nobody knows anything about them. There's hardly any, any, any publications. Nobody knows where they live. They always are found in the most remote, tropical rainforest areas, completely intact rainforest areas. And they're very, very scarce and they're endangered everywhere. So one of the people who were in the audience said All right, you've convinced me this is, this is good, this is good. I will give you the money. As soon as you show me that you can find them. Because you say that they're very difficult to find they're very rare. They're in danger. Nobody knows anything about them. Well, there's a reason why, because nobody can find them. So if you go and find them, you got the money. So I went back to Mexico and I started a reward programme, in which I a give a offered $1,000 per person who would bring me to roost of Vampyrum spectrum with the bats there. And then I'll give them $1,000. Within five months, I had seven roosts and a big hole in my bucket because this was my money, right? So, so So then with that evidence, and you know, lots of videos and pictures and everything, I went back to DC, and I show them Okay, so here we are, I got seven roasts, and then the money started flowing. And I've been studying these bands. Oh my god. They're fascinating. They're like a family. They live in families, they live in various smartphones, a male or female, the young of the year, they were younger previously. And that's it. They're really, really fascinating. So, so what I want to do is, I am going to continue learning about these bands, and hopefully protect them as well.Steve Roe:
Now, so if you've got any plans for other species going forward? Oh, yeah.Rodrigo Medellin:
Well, I mean, we, we've been expanding and expanding. I have the biggest lab in my life right now. I have more students that I should than I should have 30 students doing masters, PhD, etc. With me. Some of the other topics that we're working on are, for example, hibernation. Did you know that bats hibernate in Mexico? Well, they do. They do. And I'm gonna say a few words about hibernating in Mexico tomorrow. But in the last three years, we started that project three years ago, we more than quadrupled the number of hibernacula known in Mexico, we now have 94 hibernacula 70, more than than we had only three years ago. So and of course, this is this is in in the wake of the white nose syndrome fungus moving into Mexico, it's going to come. So we've been, we've been swabbing bats and swabbing caves and so on. Trying to document whether the fungus made it to Mexico or not, I am hopeful knock on wood. I am hopeful that the Mexican winters are mild and short and dry compared to the winters in New England and the Northeast of the United States, where it's killed millions and millions of bats. So I don't think the fungus is going to find the conditions to kill many millions of bats in Mexico, but knock on wood.Steve Roe:
And in terms of those hibernating bats, what species and are they in the same sort of numbers as you find in the United States? Obviously, over here in the UK, we get very small numbers scattered? Is it more like the United States over that?Rodrigo Medellin:
Good question. At the beginning of the project, we knew that there were five species of birds hibernating in Mexico. Now with our project, we know that it's 12 species that are hibernating in Mexico. But yes, the hibernacula are small, the largest hibernacula that we have, it's about 20,000 bats, and 20,000 is the biggest all of the others are in the orders of 100 200 300 or maybe 10 or 20. Especially they are longer bats. They they they hibernating 10 or 12 in a cave. And that'sSteve Roe:
it. And is it mainly caves or other other structures as well.Rodrigo Medellin:
So far, all of the hibernacula that we have are either in caves or in minds.Steve Roe:
You kept vampire bats as a kid, is that what it? Was that got you into bats in the first place? Or was it something else? And what's your first ever memory of about?Unknown:
Oh, no. I, I've I've had vampire bats in the family bathroom for a long time. But that was that was that was long coming. I mean, you know, I started at a very early age, all my life has been around animals. And that's nothing against my family or anything. But you know, my first word was Flamingo. So, so I've always been into animals all my life. And then when I was 11 years old, there was this TV contest on Mexico's national TV called the 64,000 peso contests in which you choose a topic and they start asking questions and you double the amount of vessels that you win every time you answer correctly. I told my mom that I wanted he'll be asked questions about mammals I could answer anything about mammals. My mom said, no, no, no, you go and play with your friends. This is not for you. I kept insisting on the system, bless her heart, she took me to the producers. The producers said, no, no, no, this is this is this is a contest for people who have real information in their heads, and they're going to showcase it. So it's not for a kid to come and throw a ball at something and get some price. No, this is not it. So my mom said, Well, why don't you ask the kid a couple of questions and see. So they pulled out a book, they started asking questions in question, some questions. I've been responding and responding and responding. And pretty soon they said, Well, congratulations. You're the first kid in the show. Everybody else we're adults. I was the first one. All right at 11. Then, I started appearing and I appeared like six or seven weeks or something. And everybody's watching because in Mexico, there's only three channels at a time. Everyone is watching, including the dean of Mexican mammalogy, but narrow V from the University of Mexico, who, who call me home? And he said, well, listen, I see that you're interested in mammals. Why don't you come over to the University of Mexico, and we will show you the real mammals that you're so injured. That was a dream come true for an 11 year old like me. So I started going and then when I was 12 years old, and not a scientist, another professor from the same lab, took me to my first gave, and I have it branded with fire in my brain. Because we went in, I was wearing a mask and gloves and all kinds of things. I had a very clunky humongous headlamp etc. And then he grabbed a California Knowsley nose leaf bat, which is a beautiful animal. And he put it he put one that there was a first one in my hand, he put it in my hand and he said, What do you see? Tell me what you see. And tell me what you think it does. So I went my god, what is this? The big ears the nose leaf, the wings. Everything was just blowing my mind away. So I started describing as it were, I don't know, I think it may be listening for insects that call in the bush and they take Yes. Look at look at the under the roost. There's a lot of wings of you know, grasshoppers and things like that. So he takes that out. And he puts another one and what does he do and so on and so forth. So in that one cave, I got to know the vampire bats, a couple of insectivorous bats. And the lesser long-nosed bat as well.Steve Roe:
Nice. Two more questions, then we'll go get some dinner because we've been starving. What did it feel like on the Batman and Batman in Mexico, there's something called the volcano of I'm going to pronounce this wrong the volcano of say again,Rodrigo Medellin:
Thank you. What did it feel like watching that emergence for the first time. And describe it for listeners asRodrigo Medellin:
well. Of the bad volcano of Calakmul is one of the most magical places on earth. Many, many biologists and many filmmakers have been there with me. And they all say this is the most fascinating place and then the experiences out of this world. So imagine a sinkhole that is dry, that is above maybe 40 or 50 metres deep, and about 60 to 80 metres wide. And then all the way to the bottom, there is the entrance of the cave. And the bad start swirling at 6pm 7pm. They start swirling and swirling and swirling and they start racing and racing and racing. They go in front of your race and they continue to rise because they have to rise above the level of the canopy of the forest that is surrounding you. This is all tropical rainforest as far as you can see. So the bats continue to rise and rise and rise and rise. And then they form a column and they head south and I still need to find out where are they going to feed we don't know. And you see the column going up like that. And as far as you can see, it's all tropical rainforests. And then you find up to 20 predatory birds that are coming and swooping and taking bats in front of your eyes right there. It's a total of about 3 million bats that comes come out from that cave. It's mind blowing. It's six species. One of them represents about 80% of those bats there. So it's absolutely fascinating.Steve Roe:
Sounds amazing. What do you think the challenges are going to be in the future for bat conservation?Rodrigo Medellin:
Well, we have a challenge in front of us. We've had the challenge for a long time in front of us and that is a lack of information, of real information and As you know, there's a lot of people who still blame bats for COVID. And that is absolutely not true. COVID is a human disease, that if you're going to get it, you're going to get it from another human being, it's not true that bats are going to give you COVID. So, unfortunately, there are some scientists who have been scaring people into thinking that bots are going to give us the next pandemic that bats are going to. I mean, please, we've been coexisting with with bots, since our very early childhood as human beings because we started living as human beings in caves together with bots, are we there? No, we are here. And we're going to continue being here. So the main thread around the world is still lack of information in the general people. Now, above and beyond that, yes, we all have a pending task to do, especially in the United Kingdom. We know that wind energy is a major, bad killer. And we have to enact mitigation measures. The mitigation measures need to become law in your country and in my country, and we're fighting to make that a reality.Steve Roe:
Rodrigo Medion. It's been an honour to have you on the podcast. Thanks very much.Rodrigo Medellin:
It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Steve for having me.Steve Roe:
Rodrigo is one of those people you could spend all day talking to and it still wouldn't be enough time. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his talk the next day was the best I've ever seen open a conference. You can find links to Rodrigo's work in the show notes along with his social media pages. We've also included the link to bat friendly tequila brands. Join me next time when I'll be in the East of England learning how a controversial road scheme could impact a super colony of some of our rarest bats.