Conservation news is so often filled with stories of threatened wildlife and species on the road to extinction that it's nice to start off 2017 with a positive update. The lesser long-nosed bat of Central and North America is doing well. So well, in fact, that United States officials have proposed removing it from the federal endangered species list.

The lesser long-nosed bat feeding on (and pollinating) local plants. Image: Bruce D. Taubert

The bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) were placed under federal protection in 1988, when just 14 roosting sites were known for the species. At the time, estimates put the bats' numbers at only around a thousand. Today, many of the threats that once plagued the species have been tackled, and US Fish and Wildlife reports that there are now around 200,000 bats roosting at 75 sites.

That's quite a comeback! But this isn't a case of a single scientific agency saving a species. This success story was made possible by a combined international effort including scientists and non-scientists alike.

The lesser long-nosed bat is a native of Mexico and the southwestern US, and it feeds mainly on nectar. You might not think the Sonoran Desert would be a great place for flowers, but the bats find sustenance in a variety of plants, including agave (which is used to make tequila) and the iconic saguaro cactus. The bats, in return, spread the plants' seeds and pollen, making them an essential piece of the ecosystem puzzle.

For agave plants, however, 2006 was a rough year. With nectar supply low, the bats turned to another food source: hummingbird feeders. When residents in Tucson, Arizona noticed bats frequenting their yards for dinner, the idea for a citizen-science project was born.

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Nectar-filled hummingbird feeders are a great substitute for native flowers, and allow scientists to observe the bats in action! Image: Richard Spitzer

"We set up a programme where the general public could report to us when they have bats feeding at their hummingbird feeders," says Scott Richardson of US Fish and Wildlife. This data allowed the scientists to monitor bat behaviour and migration patterns, and even presented the opportunity to track the bats to their roosting sites.

"I think a lot of people still have a bad image of bats, and I think that's related to the fact that they don't know very much about them," Richardson says. "For us it was really just a matter of educating people."

Meeting the cute little critters up close and learning about the bats' role in the desert ecosystem helped people overcome their fear and appreciate the animals' value – and the tactic paid off. "We started with just a few volunteers, probably a couple dozen, and we're now up to well over a hundred," Richardson says.

It's difficult to fear or hate bats once you've seen how cute they are up close. Image: David Wahl

And citizen scientists beyond the United States have been helping, too. In Mexico, the famous "Bat Man" Rodriguo Medellín has spent decades educating the public and working with agave farmers to spread practices that ensure the bats have flowers to feed from. This collaboration has even led to the establishment of "bat-friendly tequila". The bats were removed from Mexico's endangered species list in 2015.

Meanwhile, in the United States, federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and others have also been working for a long time to manage the bats' favourite plants, as well as protecting the caves where the animals are known to roost.

Removal from the US endangered species list would be a great victory for conservation, but it would not be the end of the road. "If we take them off the list and then just forget about them, chances are they're going to end up just back where they began," Richardson explains.

Even after a species comes off the list, US Fish and Wildlife is obligated to continue monitoring it for five years, and Richardson is excited to keep citizen-science projects going, as they're a great tool for research and education. "I think there will be ongoing opportunities for the public to stay involved."


Top header image: Alan Schmierer, Flickr