Hurricanes Blow Away Bats, Spread Genes to New Islands

November 25, 2008

Strong hurricanes have been known to wipe out bird and bat populations, but a new study has discovered a silver lining in those storm clouds.

Hurricanes may actually blow helpless bats in the Caribbean from one island to another, eventually reconnecting geographically isolated species and boosting genetic diversity, the research found.

"After Hurricane Ivan slammed into the West Indies, we were not particularly surprised to find bat populations depressed," said study lead author Ted Fleming at the University of Miami in Florida.

"With such powerful winds, there was going to be high mortality, but we never expected to find what we found."

Fleming and colleague Kevin Murray analyzed bat species in the West Indies before and after Hurricane Ivan slammed into the region in 2004.

The team used nets and tools to collect small bits of live bats' wing tissue for DNA analysis.

While all species showed population declines following the event, one population of the common fruit bat on Grand Cayman Island actually showed an increase in genetic diversity.

(Related: "Katrina, Rita Actually Helped Wetlands, Study Says" [September 21, 2006].)

The results will appear in the journal Biotropica in January 2009.

Winds of Change

Before the storm, only one genetic variant of the fruit bat was common on Grand Cayman, Fleming said, but afterward, two other variants appeared.

The only other island where these different bats lived was Cayman Brac, 87 miles (140 kilometers) away.

Continued on Next Page >>


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