The lesser long-nosed bat has a crucial role as a pollinator in the Southwest.

Consider the lesser long-nosed bat, a rather unattractive flying furry creature with an equally off-putting Latin name: Leptonycteris curasoa yerbabuenae.

When not hanging around in caves or abandoned mines, these mammals flutter over night-blooming saguaros, agaves and other desert plants, sucking up nectar with very long tongues. 

Not exactly lovable, perhaps, but very important as pollinators. And very much worth saving in the eyes of Tucson wildlife biologist Scott Richardson.

In fact, Richardson has spent the past 15 years working with Mexican colleagues, college students, Indian tribes, ranchers and anyone else who will help lesser long-nosed bats have a greater chance of survival. 

Finally, those efforts are being rewarded: The lesser long-nosed bat is expected to be removed from the Endangered Species List this year. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is honoring Richardson, senior biologist at the Service’s Arizona Ecological Services Office, with its Recovery Champion Award for helping the threatened critters.

How, you may wonder, does such a recovery effort work?

The very short and fascinating answer is: hummingbird feeders. Richardson has operated a citizen-scientist program for the past decade, persuading children, older folks and others in between to monitor the bats so researchers can get a better understanding of behavior.

The longer answer has to do with hard work and patience. Richardson and other biologists used the volunteer data to study migration patterns. They employed infrared video to count bats, and equipped some specimens with radio transmitters. Then they developed roost-protection techniques and established conservation plans for lesser long-nosed bat habitat.

(OK, class, repeat three times as fast as you can: lesser long-nosed bat habitat.)

Known affectionately as Leptos, the lesser long-nosed variety is based south of the border, but large numbers migrate (sans visas) into the Southwest each spring and summer. 

Adults weigh less than an ounce and measure about 3 inches in length.

Their most noteworthy feature?

A long snout, of course (although shorter than that of the greater long-nosed bat).

And a long tongue (although shorter than that of the Mexican long-tongued bat).

Richardson said when Leptos was considered for placement on the endangered list in 1988, a Southwest survey mistakenly put the population at under 1,000. (You try counting bats at night.) Now, based on improved understanding and monitoring data, researchers estimate there are more than 200,000.

Richardson said much of the increase resulted from a better count, but he also believes conservation produced a resurgence. 

In Mexico, for example, biologist Rodrigo Medellin convinced tequila makers to leave wild agaves for the birds, er, bats. (Tequila is brewed from the agave plant’s heart. Some manufacturers, aware that pollination is critical to their industry, now advertise “bat-friendly” mezcal).

In Tucson, meanwhile, agaves had a bad bloom in 2006, and residents reported something was raiding their hummingbird feeders overnight. Richardson said the culprit seemed obvious. Businesses donated more feeders, plus sugar. And monitoring became so popular that volunteers — there are now more than 140 — stage bat-watching parties.

While other bat populations are dwindling, Richardson said the lesser long-nosed species is flourishing today thanks to community support and international cooperation.

“It’s really important to note that this was an effort by a lot of people in Mexico and the United States,” he said. “It’s a great example of partnering.”


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