David Villalobos Chaves: Foraging for efficiency—morphological traits provide support for variations in performance of the feeding apparatus in coexisting Neotropical bats

In this new post, David Villalobos Chaves, a PhD student at Department of Biology and Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA, discusses his paper: Craniodental traits predict feeding performance and dietary hardness in a community of Neotropical free-tailed bats (Chiroptera: Molossidae)—recently shortlisted for the 2022 Haldane Prize for Early Career Researchers.

About the paper

Our research adds support to ecomorphological patterns observed at community levels in multiple taxonomic taxa. In simple terms, our data supports the idea that the morphology of multiple craniodental traits have closely evolved following dietary signals. In addition to this, and by including performance estimates into our correlational approach, we were further able to validate form-function-performance relationships among coexisting Neotropical bat species. In our case, but likely similar in other animal communities, these differences directly respond to performance variations among the feeding ecology of the species, which is partially responsible for the diversification patterns and community structure observed in many vertebrate communities.

3D models representing functional groups of the community. Left: A hard-food eater (Eumops underwoodi); Center: A generalist eater (Molossus pretiosus) and Right: A soft-food eater (Eumops nanus)

We would like to contribute to the advancement of the field by showing how by linking form, function and performance traits/metrics, we can support and validate ecomorphological analysis and patterns, which indeed help us to explain and understand the evolution of morphological and ecological diversity.

About the research

I enjoyed many different aspects of this research process. One of the best parts of any of my studies includes the field experience. For instance, for this particular study, I enjoyed traveling to the field site and setting up mist nets to catch bats during the night. Another particularly fun part of this project was performing the dental topography analysis. This is because we were unsure that this tool would give us enough detail to find differences among species with highly similar diets.

Being in the field is amazing and challenging. When you capture bats with mist nets, you must check the nets at regular intervals—every time you check is a surprise because you never know what is going to be in the net! In the case of this research, capturing free-tailed bats is not something that bat biologists often do as this bats rarely come close to the ground (where mist nets are usually placed). That being said, netting free-tailed bats at Parque Nacional Diriá, Costa Rica, and collecting their associated data was a totally exceptional experience that led to many discoveries, including the research covered in this blogpost and a natural history note regarding the geographic distribution of a rare Neotropical free-tailed bat documented at the study site (Eumops nanus).

I have not continued this particular study, but during its development many other questions have arisen and are waiting to be answered in the future.

About the author

David at Parque Nacional Tapantí, Cartago, Costa Rica.  Performing fieldwork is a very enjoyable part of being an ecologist. 

I am a tropical biologist from Costa Rica. I grew up in a highly diverse country surrounded by forest and animals, and, since my childhood, I have been curious about other living organisms. I first got into biology as an undergrad, and nowadays I continue my path as a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. Through my journey, I have been fortunate enough to have met brilliant and amazing people that have inspired and shaped my career in biological sciences—specifically into ecology and its multiple branches. 

For me, the best thing about being an ecologist is being able to enjoy the smallest discoveries associated with the natural history of the animals. This directly relates to being in the field observing things happening in real time. In perspective, the best thing about being an ecologist is the privilege of discovering new things about the natural world and being able to regularly visit and work in incredible places and with interesting creatures around the world.Conversely, the worst thing about being an ecologist is the fact that collecting and putting together high-quality information about the natural world is often challenging, demanding, and, unfortunately, oftentimes underappreciated. I would like to see more funding opportunities to perform research and assist with conservation efforts around the world. As a neotropical biologist, our science will highly benefit from more support and opportunities for young researchers and students.

My one piece of advice to other young ecologists is to be curious and enthusiastic about what you do—support others and collaborate to create connections and do good science!

Enjoyed the blogpost? Read the research here!

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