Updated 3 months, 1 week ago

Tequila helped spur bat recovery

The lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) is a nectar loving bat found in Central and North America. It was on the brink of extinction in 1988 when its population dropped to fewer than 1,000.

Thanks to 30 years of conservation efforts by biologists and volunteers in Mexico and the US their population bounced back. For years, citizen-scientists in Arizona kept watch on the animals and provided information on the timing of their migration. Also, US federal agencies protected their roosts and hunting areas. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today there are some 200,000 lesser long-nosed bats alive.

"These collaborative efforts have succeeded in recovering this important pollinator and seed disperser, contributing to healthy soils and habitats, and providing sustainable economic benefits for communities," said FWS Arizona Field Supervisor Steve Spangle, in a statement.

Tequila played a key role in this process.

Producers gave a boost to the bats after changing the way they harvest the key ingredient in tequila, the blue agave (Agave tequilana). The blue agave plant spends most of its life building up sugar and gearing up to blossom. It blossoms only one time, creating giant stalks that invite pollinators such as the lesser long-nosed bat. After having the nectar, the bat then pollinates other blue agave plants as it travels, meanwhile the plant dies after flowering.

Producers altered this process as they harvested blue agave just before it flowered, when sugar levels were at their best. For new plants they used the clones that sprouted at the agave’s base. As the plants never bloomed they never became food for the bats.

The agave plants are part of a “nectar corridor” used by the bats when migrating from southern Mexico to the US Southwest. The corridor includes saguaro and giant cacti, which keeps the bat’s nectar supply.

Researchers like Rodrigo Medellín form the University of New Mexico worked to convince producers it might be the best to let the flowering happen instead of replanting from clones."[Agave producers] were losing all genetic diversity, and with it all resistance to any disease that would come along," Medellín told the National Resources Defense Council.

After producers agreed to this the bats came back for their meal and began their recovery. "[The fields are] full of food and bats are visiting. It's nothing short of historic,'' Medellín told National Geographic in September 2016. "This is the way things were done six generations ago."

Under an initiative directed by Medellín and supported by the Tequila Interchange Project four brands of tequila and mezcal are now marketing their products as ‘Bat friendly’. This means the drinks come from plantations where 5% of the agave plants are let to flower for bats to feed and continue their pollination.

Thanks to their recovery the FWS has now proposed to remove the bat from their endangered species list as they believe it no longer needs special protection. Mexico delisted the bat in 2015 and if approved in the US it would be the first bat ever removed from this list.

"Many entities in both the U.S. and Mexico have worked tirelessly toward recovery and this announcement stands as testimony that dedicated efforts and sound management practices can lead to recovery of endangered species," Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said in a statement.

The delisting proposal is open for comments until March 7. Even if the bat is delisted it will still be monitored for at least five years.


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