The lesser long-nosed bat, a creature crucial to the tequila industry, is the first ever bat to be removed from the US Endangered Species List. In 1988, the species became protected under the Endangered Species Act, as fewer than 1,000 remained. Today there are over 200,000, showing that conservation efforts really do pay off.
As well as being adorable, the bats provide us with an important service – they help us make tequila. The bats use their long noses to drink the nectar of the tequila-making blue agave plant, in turn spreading its pollen, which gets caught on their fuzzy heads.
So why did the bats decline so much? Well, they hide out in caves and abandoned mine shafts throughout northern Mexico and the US’ Southwest. Unfortunately, so do people. Drug smugglers and human traffickers often hide in these caves, either disturbing the bats or killing them directly.
Meanwhile, attempts to control rabies by targeting vampire bats in the past have had the unfortunate consequence of also killing non-target bat species, like the lesser long-nosed bat. And, in an attempt to quench the world’s growing thirst for tequila, the expanding tequila industry turned to cloning agave and cutting it before it reproduces, rather than letting it reproduce naturally through pollination, preventing the production of pollen, which the bats normally eat.
Eventually, there were fewer than 1,000 bats across 14 roosts in Mexico and the US, and the animals were tumbling towards extinction.
Enter an international team of Mexican and American scientists, NGOs, citizen scientists, and state, federal, and tribal entities who came together to save the lesser long-nosed bat.
The residents of southern Arizona monitored the bats' visits to hummingbird feeders in their gardens. This helped biologists better understand their migration, while radio transmitters were attached to them to help researchers work out where they roosted.
The bats migrate – although some groups stay in Mexico all year round – from southern Mexico to northern Mexico or the Southwestern US in search of “maternity roosts” where pregnant females can access food and nurse their pups. Traveling up to 64 kilometers (40 miles) each night, the animals follow the “nectar trail” – the flowering pattern of the plants, like organ pipe cacti and saguaros, that provide them with sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen.
The team also protected the bats’ important food sources and erected “bat gates” to block their caves from unwanted visitors. Tequila manufacturers even started producing “bat-friendly” tequila, where a portion of the plants are left to bloom naturally.
And it seems all these efforts have paid off. Since it was first signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has saved a number of species from extinction. Other animals to be removed from the list include the Virginia northern flying squirrel, the American peregrine falcon, and the Lake Erie water snake.
“It is great to see the lesser long-nosed bat has reached its recovery goals and is no longer under imminent threat of extinction,” said Dr Winifred Frick, Bat Conservation International’s chief scientist, in a statement. “The story of the lesser long-nosed bat shows that conservation and science work together to provide species the chance to recover and persist.”