While mainstream Hollywood portrays bats to be nothing more than a famous bloodsucker, Tigga Kingston of Texas Tech’s Department of Biological Science reveals bats to play a much more serious role in real life.
Kingston, who is a key player in the conservation of bats in South East Asia, according to the Texas Tech website, said her decision to focus on bat research began unintentionally during her undergraduate expedition in the Colombian rainforest.
“I managed to join one of those [expeditions] in my first year, that was going to Colombia, and it was a mixed team of birds, bats, and other small mammals, and my role was to work on other small mammals, like the rodents,” she said. “But the mammal traps got stuck in customs in the Colombian airport…so we borrowed the nets that the birders used and netted for bats instead. Once I encountered my first set of bats, it was just bats from then on.”
Although she was born in the Indian Ocean Island, Mauritius, Kingston said she grew up and pursued her high school education in England and later attended Boston University for her Ph.D. in Ecology, Behavior and Evolution. She said her decision to attend Boston University was influenced by its famous professor, Thomas Kunz, an American biologist specializing in bat studies.
On a personal level, Kingston said she was fascinated by bats due to their immense diversity, revealing that in one Malaysian rainforest, where she did some of her work, there are over 70 species of bats. Bats are also mammals like human beings but are the only mammals able to fly, which spikes her interest.
“They have every organ that we have squashed in their tiny little bodies, but they fly and echolocate,” she said. “They see the world in a completely different way…they use sound to orient themselves to hunt for insects, find fruits and flowers. It's like working with little, tiny aliens, but they're mammals.”
However, after years of witnessing the threats bats faced, Kingston said she decided to shift from being a pure ecologist to a conservation biologist. She said one of her ongoing projects with Tech aims to bring bat researchers around the world together to discuss bat diversity and conservation.
Although oblivious to many people, Kingston said bats render significant ecosystem services by helping with pollination, pest control and seed dispersion.
“Bats poop while flying,” Kingston said. “They defecate the seeds [of fruits] as they fly very long distances, helping disturbed landscapes recover.”
Nancy Simmons, Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History curator, said if farmers paid for the chemicals to protect their crops to the same extent that bats do, it would be vastly more expensive to feed humans.
“Because of the underappreciated pest control bats provide, bats save companies billions of dollars of pest control for agriculture around the world,” she said.
Simmons said she and Kingston are long-time colleagues, who are now both co-principal investigators on a grant for networking all bat research networks around the world.
Another useful feature of bats is their bizarrely long lifespan, which Kingston said has inspired a lot of research to what this can biomedically mean for humans. Also, the bat’s ability to echolocate has inspired numerous studies of how echolocation technologies may improve life for the blind.
“Currently, the biomedical interest in bats is their immunology,” Kingston said. “Bats carry many viruses harmful to people, but it doesn't make the bats themselves sick at all. Now the big question is, why not? So, a lot of scientists are studying their immune system.”
With her riveting curiosity about bats, Kingston said it was Tech’s rich history with mammalogy and its bat research in the Natural Science Research Laboratory that drew her to apply and accept the job. Currently, Kingston teaches a publishing class for graduate students working on their first scientific papers.