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A group image of the film crew

Alumna’s work with bats blossoms into documentary series

For most of her life, Kristen Lear has been interested in bats.

The passion began in elementary and middle school when, as a Girl Scout, she learned about bats during summer camp night hikes and her Silver Award project. She later tailored her college studies to focus on bats, eventually earning a unique interdisciplinary doctoral degree through the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Now, all that knowledge is taking on a new dimension through a video documentary project Lear helped create with her employer, the nonprofit Bat Conservation International. As one of the world’s experts on Mexican long-nosed bats, which travel hundreds of miles to give birth to their pups, she hopes the video can help the general public understand more about the role these animals play in the ecosystem.

“The ‘We Belong Together’ campaign aims to share awareness of the Agave Restoration Initiative and the work of our partners,” said Lear, who leads Bat Conservation International’s Agave Restoration Initiative in the United States and Mexico. The project has brought environmental and educational nonprofits, local communities and landowners, government agencies, schools and industries to protect threatened and endangered pollinator bats.

That’s because these tiny animals play a large role in desert and mountain ecosystems. Every spring, female bats fly hundreds of miles from their homes in Mexico to parts of the U.S. Southwest. To help fuel their journey, they feed on nectar from agave plants—the large, iconic desert plants that dot the landscape.

While the nectar is critical to the bats’ survival, the bats’ feeding is also the way new agave plants form—bats taking the nectar spreads agave pollen to help propagate new plants. Agaves are also an important cultural and economic resource for communities in Mexico. For generations, the plants have been harvested and used to make products like tequila, mezcal and agave syrup. Other parts of the plants are used to make rope, paper or fabric, and their root systems help control erosion.

But climate change, land-use changes and livestock grazing are now threatening agaves and the ecosystems that depend on them. To help spread the word about the importance of these small bats—the linchpin in the whole process—Lear and her colleagues began thinking outside the box.

“We hired a film producer, Chris Gallaway from Horizonline Pictures, and over the past two years we worked with him—over many Zoom meetings—to plan out the campaign and the videos,” she said. “Then, once we had planned the trips to the field, we went out to do the filming and the interviews—all of the content for the campaign.”

The videos include interviews with local farmers, wildlife experts and professionals working to restore agaves. It also includes details on the 750-mile migration the bats make to give birth, and a close look at the agave flowers that feed them. The films and interactive elements of the campaign feature video shot by the crew hired by Bat Conservation International, but also feature images taken by professionals such as Lear (it can be difficult to get bats to follow a filming schedule).

Lear said it’s important that communities across the Southwest and Mexico are aware of the vital role these bats play in the ecosystem—especially as environmental changes are now affecting the landscape. The videos in “We Belong Together” aim to reach a wide audience.

“There’s a general understanding that agaves are good for the ecosystem. They produce a ton of pollen and they are important for pollinators. What a lot of people don’t know is the bat aspect—not as many people know about nighttime things, like the bats,” said Lear. “But people are starting to love and appreciate bats and in the Southwest people love agaves, and we wanted to bring that story to life, as well as the ways people can support the bats and the agaves in the communities where we’re working.”

At UGA, Lear’s degree was through the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. program, which emphasizes collaborative skills that cross multiple disciplines. The video project can be seen as an extension of that training, and it also connects Lear to a long-time passion of making science accessible to the general public.

“With Warnell and the ICON program, it really gave a holistic approach to conservation challenges. You’re looking at the communities and the system as a whole,” said Lear. “That’s been one of my favorite parts of my Ph.D. work and now, at Bat Conservation International, I get to work with people and apply what we learned at Warnell, but also work to make a difference in communities through conservation. It’s a challenging part of the work but extremely rewarding.”

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