Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Bats of Matanzas

The Province of Matanzas, in western Cuba, is known for the wonderful white sands of Varadero Beach, its turquoise waters, the amazing Bellamar caves, and the Zapata Swamp, the largest "humedal" in all the Caribbean. What Matanzas is not known for, however, is for its richness in bat species. Of the 28 living species recorded for the Cuban archipelago, 26 inhabit the province of Matanzas, representing the six bat families that inhabit Cuba (1).

Leach's Single-Leaf nosed bat (Monophyllus redmani).
This species feeds mostly on pollen and plays a key role in pollination of plants.

A reason for the high diversity of bats in Matanzas may be that Cuba does not possess major geographical barriers such as very tall mountains or deserts. Instead, the island is characterized by its low-lying landscape, with hills that rarely surpass 300 m in height. As a result, bat distribution in Cuba is highly homogeneous. Similar numbers of species are found in all other of Cuba's 15 provinces. This could be a reflection of the area's most recent geological history or less collecting efforts in the rest of Cuba.

The Cuban Archipelago (GoogleEarth). 

Bats are amazing creatures, with amazing adaptations. With their skin-webbed wings, velvety fur, and sharp teeth, bats have probably cruised the Cuban skies in search of food and shelter for a least 33 million years (Eocene-Oligocene), when the island emerged and became available for colonization; although, unfortunately, we only have bat fossils from the last 20 thousand years (2).

Waterhouse's Leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus waterhousei). 

The biological diversity and uniqueness of Cuba is a result of the island’s intricate geological history and its long isolation from the mainland. Over 60% of the Cuban landscape is karstic, and nearly 80 % if the submerged platform is counted, indicating a high potential in the availability of caves, crucial shelters that allow high species richness. In fact, this has been correlated by bat researchers (Brunett and Medellin, 2001). Of the 28 known Cuban bats, 15 are strict cave -dwellers, with most others using caves opportunistically (1).

Insectivorous Waterhouse's Leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus waterhousei) in flight

Here is where Matanzas shines. Matanzas harbors today the most extensive subaerial karst region of the entire Cuban archipelago, a potentially very cave-rich region ~65,500 km² wide. Probably, no other province in Cuba has more caves available for bat roosting than Matanzas today. Moreover, this was more strikingly so 10,000 years ago, when the Gulf of Batabanó, south of the western half of Cuba, had the largest potential in the availability of caves for bat roosting anywhere in the Cuban archipelago, competing in the Caribbean only with the Bahama bank. Once the ice of the last glacial maximum melted with the warmer temperatures of the Holocene epoch, sea level rose and inundated most of the Cuban ancient karst plains, drowning about ~13,300 km² of latent cave-rich territory (3), essential for bat life in the island, and likely culling the territory of a few species. Many have postulated this as the reason for the disappearance of several bat species.

Jamaican Fruit-eating bat Artibeus jamaicensis  roosting on
the calcarenite limestone of Varadero's Ambrosio Cave. 

Matanzas has played an important role in the study of Cuban bats since at least the XIX century. Four of Cuba's bats Pteronotus parnelli, Pteronotus quadridens, Phyllonycteris poeyi and Tadarida brasiliensis (muscula), were collected and described for the first time from Matanzas, near the coffee plantation Fundador de Canímar. This feat is the work of the German naturalist, Johannes Gundlach.

Sooty Moustached-bat Pteronotus quadridens

Gundlach stopped in Cuba on his way to South America and fell in love with the island. I venture to say, he fell in love with Matanzas as well, for he took residence there for nearly the rest of his life. He settled in the lush region near the Canímar River, where he stayed with the Booth family who had plantations there. Gundlach roamed the countryside, especially the Zapata Swamp, and the Canímar River gorge where he observed and collected specimens of mollusks, reptiles, and bats.

Albumen print of Johannes Gundlach (XIX century)

It is through the work of the proliferous Johannes Gundlach and Gilberto Silva Taboada that I came to love bats. In 1992, my parents gave me Silva Taboada's Los Murcielagos de Cuba (The Bats of Cuba), which to my delight had a great introduction to the life of Gundlach and his bat research.

Two-thousand-year-old fossils of Jamaican Fruit-eating bat (above)
and the ultra rare Cuban pallid bat Antrozous koopmani (below). 

Under the auspice of Gundlach and Silva, I studied the bats living in the roof of our schools and nearby caves, amassing a large set of information, with other colleagues, on the bat diversity in the city and nearby caves. This information resulted in over 100 new fossil and modern bat-collecting localities, several publications, and first records for the province of Matanzas.
For example, we (Ricardo Viera and I) reported the new records of the rare and extinct Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus, Cuban fruit-eating bat Artibeus anthonyi, Peter’s ghost-faced bat Mormoops megalophylla, Greater funnel-eared bat Natalus primus, and Koopman’s pallid bat Antrozous koopmani. In addition, to new records of living Cuban lesser funnel-eared bat Chilonatalus macer, Cuban yellow bat Lasiurus insularis and Pfeiffer’s red bat Lasiurus pfeifferi , and including remote localities in the Zapata Swamp as in the urban Varadero (see publications here, and Viera's here).

A male Jamaican Fruit-eating bat Artibeus jamaicensis
from Palenque Hill Cave, Mayabeque. 

Currently, we are finishing a gazetteer on all the known fossil and modern bat localities in the province that can be useful towards entropy modeling for species distribution in the archipelago. We hope to collaborate with all those interested.

More so, the research continues. Some of our findings have been corroborated by Proyecto CUBABAT under the direction of Melissa Connelly, with the collaboration of colleagues in Matanzas. They have recently reported, and photographed, the Cuban fig-eating bat Phyllops falcatus in Varadero, so far only reported there from fossil remains (see citations above), and the Cuban lesser funnel-eared bat Chilonatalus macer, and Pfeiffer’s red bat Lasiurus pfeifferi (M. Connelly, pers. comm.) This project has a great potential, for it disseminates important information on the ecological importance of bats. Additionally,  through research, they collect useful data crucial for bat conservation in not only Matanzas but also all of Cuba and the Greater Antilles.

We wish them success!


I thank once more, my friend and mentor Dr. Adrian Tejedor for his support and guidance. And once again for helping unravel my torturous prose. Thank you profe. I also thank Ricardo A. Viera, Lazaro Vinola, Leonel Perez, Canido Santana, and Joel Monzon for the information provided and years of trecking up and down the caves of Matanzas in search of bats and fossils.


1. Silva-Taboada, G. 1979. Los Murciélagos de Cuba. Editorial Academia, La Habana. 424pp.

2. Iturralde-Vinent, M. see his geological literature regarding Matanzas on Biblioteca Digital Cubana de Geociencias.

3. Atlas Nacional de Cuba 1969-1985.

Jiménez, O., M. M. Condis, and E. García. 2005. Vertebrados post-glaciales en un residuario fósil de Tyto alba scopoli (Aves: Tytonidae) en el occidente de Cuba. Revista Mexicana de Mastozoología, 9:84-111.

Orihuela, J. 2011. Skull variation of the vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (Chiroptera: Phyllostomidae): Taxonomic implications for the Cuban fossil vampire bat Desmodus puntajudensis. Chiroptera Neotropical 17(1): 963-976.

Orihuela, J. 2012. Late Holocene fauna from a cave deposit in Western Cuba: post-Columbian occurrence of the vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (Phyllostomidae: Desmodontinae). Caribbean Journal of Science, 46 (2): 297-313.

Orihuela, J., and A. Tejedor. 2012. Peter's ghost-faced bat Mormoops megalophylla (Chiroptera: Mormoopidae) from a pre-Columbian archaeological deposit in Cuba. Acta Chiropterologica 14(1): 63-72.

Orihuela, J., R. Viera, and L. Vinola. 2017. New bat records based on modern and fossil remains from the province of Matanzas, Cuba.

Suárez, W. 2005. Taxonomic Status of the Cuban Vampire Bat (Chiroptera: Phyllostomidae: Desmodontinae: Desmodus). Caribbean Journal of Science 41 (4):761-767.

Viera, R. A. 2004. Aportes a la Quiropterofauna nacional. 1861: Revista de Espeleologia y Arqueologia, Matanzas, 5 (1): 21-23.

Woloszyn, B.W., and N.A. Mayo. 1974. Postglacial remains of a vampire bat (Chiroptera: Desmodus) from Cuba. Acta Zool.Cracoviensia 19:253-265.