Going Batty in American Samoa
Written by Graduate Student/Bat Biologist Adam Miles and Volunteer Suzanna Welch.
The Alarm Sounds. Darkness All Around…
I hit snooze. Sleep. Snooze again. The bats would not wait. The White-naped fruit bats (Pteropus tonganus) would soon return to their collective roosts, as the Samoan fruit bats (Pteropus samoensis) would just be rising to start a new day.
As I splashed my face with frigid water, my heavy eyelids wondered how I would make it through a long day of field work. I heard my stomach churn and momentarily longed for a taste of the palusami (taro leaf and congealed coconut milk) I had eaten for dinner the night before. As I pulled on my gray I&M t-shirt and cap, I also began to long for the instant coffee from the infamous Seaside gas station. From Leone, the town where missionaries built the first Christian church in American Samoa, it would take between one hour to an hour and a half of pot holes and slow mini buses, to reach the much needed instant coffee.
When I finally arrived at the beloved fuel stop, the coffee was hot and the customer service was cold. But who could blame these groggy teenagers at five in the morning?
My dented rental car continued to rattle over uneven pavement until I reached my destination: a grassy spot on the side of the road in the seat of Amalau Valley. The sky was just fading from a dark indigo to a pale powdery pink as I doused my exposed neck and forearm skin in 100% DEET. The first flying fox appeared on the horizon.
In increments of ten minutes I counted the bats that soared from tree to tree. They were sampling the fruits of the Palaquium stehlini and Syzygium inophylloides while chasing one another; flirting and fighting in the day’s first rays shining through the clouds. During the five minute breaks between counts, I sipped my dark, non-drip, brewed crystals; the caffeine stimulating my senses with every swallow.
During the seventh count I peered through my binoculars at a Pteropus tonganus, grooming its white nape. I watched as the mammal released a clump of guano on to the snag from which it hung.
The call of the boobies and the rustle of the coconut crabs subsided. In the intimate moments that I shared with my surroundings, I realized a deeper connection between myself and the creatures I had been sent to study. Frequently the natural world cannot be confined to the columns and rows of our data sheets.
Be sure to check out the website for the National Park of American Samoa!