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The Wilds of Madagascar

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Dispatches
May 24, 2000
Bat Cave



Bat Cave The yawning entrance to Bat Cave dwarfs Malagasy guide Angeluc Razafimanantsoa.
This afternoon Angeluc Razafimanantsoa, my Malagasy guide, and I trekked up to Bat Cave. A large hole in the western wall of the massif, the cave is home to thousands of fruit and other bats. Angeluc had told me the bats leave the cave en masse at twilight, so we timed our journey to be there then. We hiked through dry tropical forest, listening to the grunt-like alarm calls of crowned lemurs off in the trees. Just below the cave entrance, a cascade of tsingy blocks had poured ages ago, and we clambered over them slow as snails. It was late afternoon, and as we came over a lip of ground that fronted the cave, I could see the sun just catching the highest parts of the entrance's amphitheater dome. Looking down, I saw small trees and plants filling the damp ground leading to the entrance proper. As we headed down into the cave, a group of black vaza parrots hidden in the foliage raucously announced their displeasure at being disturbed as they beat a hasty retreat over the lip and out into the savannah.

Inside the cave was moist and smelled strongly of bat guano. We followed the squeals of bats coming from down deep in a pitch-black pit, being careful not to lose our footing on the slick rocks. Reaching the pit, we turned our headlamps upward, illuminating hundreds of pairs of amber orbs many tens of feet above us. These natural headlights moved with the swaying of the bats, which dangled by their feet from the ceiling. We listened as the squeals repeatedly built to a crescendo, then died away. I was careful not to look straight up, because now and then I heard a splat as freshly minted bat poop hit the rocks near me; occasionally I also felt a fine shower on my bare arms: bat pee.

As the sun dropped below the horizon, the squeals took on a sense of urgency, though the few bats that had actually taken to the air inside the cave flew with a marked unhurriedness, flapping their wings slowly as they wheeled around the vast space. Periodically I'd hear what sounded like a bat wing slapping against rock. Do bats go bump in the night?

Inside Bat Cave View from within Bat Cave, looking towards the entrance as the sun set on the savanna outside.

When it was almost too dark for us to see, it was almost dark enough for the bats, and they began moving singly yet in increasing numbers towards the entrance. Angeluc and I followed, moving out into the gathering dusk, which was still too bright for the bats. Dozens now circled the amphitheater—a vortex of flying fur—but not one flew out over the lip. I had a strong sense of watching the preparations for an imminent performance. Stagehands could be seen moving about getting things ready, while the stars of the show remained out of sight back stage. The lights were going down, and a hush had fallen over the audience of two.

"One is go," Angeluc suddenly said, pointing up towards the sky, where he had seen the pioneer bat cross the lip. What distinguishes that first bat from all the others, I wondered?

I looked up and saw what may have been the very same bat coming back over the lip.

"He just came back," I said, pointing. For some reason Angeluc found that hilarious. His loud, head-shaking laugh is infectious, and soon I was laughing too.

Then another and another flapped out into the increasing night, sometimes right over our heads. By the time it was dark enough to need a headlamp to write in my notebook, we could see hundreds of bats at any one moment silhouetted against the still-white sky. It seemed amazing they were mammals, just like us. With those squeals, which brought to mind something a rubber toy might make when squeezed, they reminded me more of E.T.


Fruit Bat This fruit bat, hanging in a cave in the Ankarana, has a wingspan of approximately two feet.
Wanting to feel the exiting bats all around me, I descended once again into the cave. But even at the narrowest part, where the ceiling angled down to within 40 feet of the floor, the bats never came near me as they do sometimes back home out in a grassy field or on a lonely road at night; I never felt the swoosh of wings behind my head. They stayed near the ceiling, flying with seemingly studied patience.

When I was out of sight of the entrance, I turned off my headlamp. In the pure cave darkness, my eyes became useless, heightening the other senses. The stink of bat guano was almost overpowering, but I listened with pleasure to the wind-in-the-treetops rush of flying bats.

We stayed at Bat Cave until the great majority of the bats, from the sound of it, had headed out to feed in the bug-rich savanna. By then it was completely dark, and we had to make our way even more delicately over the tsingy blocks. If only we could have just taken flight with the bats.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer for NOVA.

Check back in tomorrow as we join Luke Dollar in his search for the fossa. Tonight we had an auspicious sign: just after dinner Dollar spotted a young fossa near one of his traps.


Dispatches
Forest of Hope (June 7, 2000)
A Great Day for Silkies (June 4, 2000)
Camp Life Unveiled (June 3, 2000)
Three Hours with the Silkies (June 1, 2000)
Angels of Marojejy (May 31, 2000)
Wildlife (May 30, 2000)
Into the Marojejy Massif (May 28, 2000)
Croc Cave (May 26, 2000)
Fossa! (May 25, 2000)
Bat Cave (May 24, 2000)
Update: English Camp (May 23, 2000)
Update: Sunken Forest (May 21, 2000)
Update: Night Walk (May 20, 2000)
Update: 70 Feet Up (May 19, 2000)
Update: Tropical Downpour (May 18, 2000)


Photos: (1,2) Peter Tyson; (3) David Parks/library photo.

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