Conch Bar Caves foster a special habitat that provides homes for a number of animals – most notably bats, the only native mammals of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Locally, bats are known as ‘rat-bats’, although they are not closely related to rodents.
For reasons of both safety and conservation of this sensitive area and its wildlife, any visits must be approved by the National Trust and be led by a guide with a current National Trust certificate for these caves. Your guide will also point out some of the features of interest.
Bats are the only mammals capable of true flight.
Because they can fly, bats are often the only native land mammals on islands.
All bats can fly. While some species can move about in the ground by hopping or crawling, and others can catch fish by flying low over water, no bats live on the ground or in the water.
Bats can live up to 30 years old.
Guano, or composted bat droppings, was a valuable resource and was mined from these caves for production of fertilizer and explosives.
Bats are not blind but, like humans, they do not see well in the dark. Instead, bats use echolocation to ‘se’ in the dark – they make sounds too high for humans to hear, which bounce off of objects and echo to the bat. This tells the bat what is around it.
Bats are not dangerous to people. Contrary to popular myths, they do not tangle themselves in people’s hair. While there are a few species of bats that drink blood from birds or large mammals as a food source, none of those species live anywhere near the Turks & Caicos Islands.
Most bat mothers leave their pups in ‘nurseries’ on cave ceilings while they fly; others carry their babies with them during flight.
Scientists can study bat echolocation with a ‘bat detector’, which changes the sounds to a pitch at which they can be heard by humans. Bats can be identified by their sounds, just like identifying a bird call – and the sounds can even tell us what a bat is doing.
The Bats of Conch Bar Caves
Waterhouse’s Big-eared Bat Macrotus waterhousii
These medium-sized bats inhabit all areas of the cave, most notably the rooms near the entrances, where individuals often roost alone. They leave the cave each night to hunt for the large insects such as katydids, cockroaches, and Erebus moths. You can see where they eat regularly – the floor will be littered with the wings and shells of these insects. They produce a sweet-smelling musk from a gland between their ears; this contributes to the unique scent of the caves’ air.
Buffy flower bat Erophylla sezekorni
These small bats have golden-tan fur and roost in loose colonies in most parts of the caves. They eat both insects and fruit, but specialize in feeding on cactus nectar and pollen. They are the most widespread and commonly seen bat in the caves.
Cuban fruit Bat Brachyphylla nana
These large bats inhabit just one room of the cave, tightly packing into just a few solution holes in the ceiling. The Conch Bar Caves colony represents the northernmost extent of this species’ range. Each night, these bats leave the caves to find the fruits of palms, figs and cacti. They are responsible for distributing these trees’ seeds around the island. The colony, numbering about one thousand, is a valuable but fragile part of the island ecosystem; therefore access to this part of the cave is strictly prohibited.
Redman’s Long-tongued Bat Monophyllus redmani
The smallest bat in Conch Bar Caves, this tiny bat is dusky grey in colour and prefers the darkest parts of the cave for roosting. Shy and nervous, they often flee at the sounds of human disturbance. Redman’s Long-tongued Bats prefer to inhabit small crevices and tiny solution holes, cramming up to one hundred of their tiny bodies together in a tight space. They feed mostly on the nectar of cacti and other night-blooming flowers.
Red Bat Lasiurus borealis
The only other bat that occurs in the area is the Red Bat. These do not habitually live in caves, but they have been seen in these caves hunting insects during the daylight hours. While all of our other bat species have ‘snouts’, the Red Bat’s flat face gives it a plain look. The fur is a striking red-brown, and the wings are black. An obligate insect eater, Red bats can eat thousands in one night. They roost in large trees, concealing themselves among bundles of dead leaves hanging from twigs. Most bats have one young at a time – Red Bats can have up to four pups at a time.
Other features of the caves
Formations in the cave are created when acidic rainwater dissolves the soft limestone as it flows through this porous rock. It is very important that the formations are not touched at all. They are extremely fragile and break easily, and the oils from our skin will bond to the stone and prevent further deposits from forming – thus stopping the structure’s growth. DO NOT TOUCH any of the formations.
Stalactites form from the ceiling of the cave. When the water flows through the ceiling of the cave and drips to the floor, a minute amount of limestone or calcium is left deposited in the ceiling. The process continues until a stalactite is formed.
Stalagmites usually form under stalactites. They grow up from the floor of the cave, by the same process of the deposit of minute amounts of dissolved limestone. Columns form when stalactites and stalagmites meet and join.
Some stalagmites take on interesting patterns and textures due to their formation. Some look like bunches of broccoli, others like a sunny-side-up egg. This cave also has some unique formations that resemble Winnie-the-Pooh’s honey-pots.
Look for stalactites with appearances of a bat, a foot, and a face.
Please do not shine lights directly on bats.
Do not leave litter and do not take away any plants or anything else from this nature Reserve. It will reduce the enjoyment of others and it’s against the law!