Gamboa Bat Nights: Bilingual Noches de Murciélagos along the Panama Canal

The first Sunday of every month, you can join researchers from the Smithsonian Bat Lab to get a close-up look at Panama’s bats

Victoria Flores and Sara Vasquez (photo by Michael Le Chevallier).jpg
Victoria Flores and Sara Vásquez inspect a bat at Bat Night. Together with Gerry Carter, Victoria Flores, a former STRI Fellow, first suggested hosting regular events to share the excitement of bat research with the public. Michael Le Chevallier

As the sun sets in Gamboa, Panama, bats begin their nightly hunt. Backlit by dusk’s blue-gray glow, they dive and duck, flickering in and out of view among the silhouettes of trees and bushes. When the bats come out, so do a group of researchers who study and love them, to throw a celebration in their honor–Bat Night (Noche de Murciélagos). 

Bat Night is held the first Sunday of every month outside the Smithsonian laboratory in Gamboa, along the Panama Canal about thirty kilometers from Panama City. Led by principal investigator Rachel Page, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Bat Lab has organized these bilingual public outreach events every month for nearly a decade. Gregg Cohen, the Page Lab’s research manager, has been participating in Bat Nights since he joined the group in 2018. He says their mission is simple: to “let people enjoy bats the way that we do.”

At a recent Bat Night, intern Melissa López González explained how she first became interested in bats. As a little girl in Chilibre, Panamá, she watched bats fly around her house at night and yearned to see them up close. López González’s childhood love of bats led her to research their sensory and cognitive ecology, or how bats perceive and make sense of the world around them. Specifically, she studies the behavior of Panama’s fishing bats, who use echolocation–sounds too high-pitched for humans to hear–to locate ripples in the water made by small fish. 

STRI intern Melissa López Gonzalez studies fishing bats, which use echolocation to find fish to eat.  Imran Razik
Like this greater fishing bat (Noctilio leporinus), many bats emit a series of high-frequency calls that bounce off their surroundings, and then use their large, satellite-like ears to listen for the returning sounds which carry information about potential prey, obstacles, or predators in their environment.  Christian Ziegler
Once fishing bats use their echolocation to detect water ripples made by fish, they drag their large, clawed feet just below the water’s surface, scooping the fish into a pouch that extends between their hind legs. Christian Ziegler
Mid-flight, they shift the fish into their expandable cheeks, which can store large quantities of food. Christian Ziegler

For López González, Bat Nights are an important opportunity to share her love for bats and dismantle the misconceptions people have about them. Standing in front of a table full of bat-themed t-shirts, stickers, and posters (the proceeds from which fund fellowships for bat research), she explained, “Sometimes people think it’s better to kill the bats we study, so it’s important that we can teach people that bats aren’t dangerous.” Rather, López González wants to teach people the important roles bats play in maintaining healthy, balanced ecosystems–something that’s critical not just for environmental health, but for human health, too. 

Imran Razik, a PhD student at The Ohio State University who studies vampire bats (and is the artist behind Bat Night’s posters and stickers), has been giving talks about bat biology and ecology at Bat Nights since 2019. Through these experiences sharing with the public, Razik has realized that he wants to make outreach an important part of his career going forward. Standing next to a carefully hand-painted sign pointing visitors towards the vampire bat table, he explained how his experience sharing about bats night after night has also helped him develop valuable communication skills. “The skills we’re developing can transfer so easily to other contexts: communications, science writing, museum curation, donor relations, all require skills we’re developing here at Bat Night.”

Imran Razik releases a great stripe-faced bat (Vampyrodes caraccioli). Steve Paton
Bat researchers use fine, lightweight nets called mist nets hung between poles in the forest to safely capture bats. Once bats fly into the nets, they become tangled, unable to get out except with the help of the skilled, patient hands of a bat researcher. Steve Paton
STRI intern Léna de Framond-Bénard releases a bat at the September 2023 Bat Night.  Steve Paton

Headlamp strapped to her forehead, Page explained Bat Night’s origins; with the exception of closures due to the pandemic, Bat Night has been running every month since 2015. “We were getting a lot of requests for bat nights from the community, visiting school groups, and the general public.” Because bats are nocturnal, the Bat Lab’s research is primarily conducted at night, and so it became hard to accommodate the numerous visit requests. At a lab meeting, then-STRI Fellow Victoria Flores first voiced the idea for Bat Night–a regular, monthly event that field courses, families, tourists, or anyone interested in learning about bats could join. Together with STRI Fellow Gerry Carter, who launched the original Bat Night website (now hosted here), the event began to take shape. Page says that Bat Night is a team effort that has become an integral part of the lab culture over the years. “The group is really fantastic about putting Bat Night together month after month–I think everybody intrinsically wants to give back and share what they’re doing with the community,” said Page.

Gregg Cohen explains to visitors the relationship between two popular species in the Page Lab, the fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus) and its favorite meal, túngara frogs (Engystomops pustulosus). Cohen is demonstrating how a “robofrog” works, a model frog developed by Smithsonian collaborators that allows researchers to investigate how frog-eating bats sense their prey. Imran Razik
A fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus) approaching a robofrog. Studies out of the Bat Lab show that the vocal sac, frog call, and ripples in the water that alert potential mates to the male túngara frog’s presence also attract hungry bats. Grant Maslowski

Visiting Bat Lab collaborators like Dr. Alex Trillo from Gettysburg College eagerly joined Bat Night. Trillo and her students study the relationship between fringe-lipped bats (Trachops cirrhosus), túngara frogs (Engystomops pustulosus), and hourglass tree frogs (Dendropsophus ebraccatus). 

It’s important to Trillo that her students learn how to communicate their science to the general public. “Especially after the pandemic, it’s obvious how important science communication is,” she reflected. Trillo sees outreach opportunities like Bat Night as an important part of training her students to become the next generation of scientists. And, as they conduct their work in Panama, Trillo encourages her students to try to communicate in Spanish.  “If you come to a country with a different language, you need to make an effort to communicate your science to the people who live there, in their language.” She sees the responsibility of the researcher to do outreach and science communication for the communities in the places they’re studying. 

A fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus) approaches an hourglass tree frog (Dendropsophus ebraccatus). As the calls of breeding túngara frogs attract hungry fringe-lipped bats, hourglass tree frogs in the area can get eaten as well–a risk Trillo calls “collateral damage.” At one of several tables set up for scientists to share their research at Bat Night, Trillo and her students explain how their field equipment, a series of microphones and sound-sensing cameras, can locate where different species of calling frogs are in relation to one another. Grant Maslowski
A fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosus) approaches a túngara frog (Engystomops pustulosus). Grant Maslowski

“The students might not be able to explain their entire research project in Spanish, but they can tell part of it here. It’s really important to me that they learn to do this, or at least try.” One of Trillo’s students, Arden Dowd, values Bat Night as an important part of her summer internship. “It would be pretty unfair, in my eyes, if we came in, did this research and collected this data, and didn’t share it.”

Over the years, the event has seen thousands of visitors from across Panama and around the world. That Bat Night, a young family from Panama City learned that bats can eat all sorts of things: nectar-eating bats help pollinate flowers, fruit-eating bats help disperse seeds, and insect-eating bats help control mosquito populations, which can reduce the transmission of diseases dangerous to humans. A group of tourists visiting from Madrid left Bat Night with a new appreciation for bats in their home country, learning that bats that live on every continent but Antarctica. And a group of visiting biology students from the US learned how vampire bats share food with their friends–a type of cooperation not often seen in nature. 

Coloring sheets and crafts help teach kids about Panama’s bats, like the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), which only feeds on blood–though almost never on humans. Imran Razik
Vampire bats are highly social animals with relationships within their colonies; because blood isn’t a nutrient-rich food, if vampire bats don’t eat every three days they’ll die. If a bat is too weak to forage for its own food, another bat will come back to the colony and regurgitate its own meal to feed its friend. Studies have demonstrated that these bats remember who fed them–and will repay the favor. Uwe Schmidt

Bats are one of the most diverse groups of mammals, with over 1,450 different species worldwide–a number that keeps going up–which makes Bat Night a learning opportunity for the researchers, too. “Every time I’m listening to other researchers tell their stories, I’m learning; there’s so much to know about bats, I’m never finished,” said Cohen. Andy Quitmeyer from the Digital Naturalism Lab (dinalab) in Gamboa, agreed. He explained that, through the process of sharing knowledge with others, scientists learn their studies more deeply: “One reason outreach is important is because it makes you into a much better scientist.”

Page thinks that the diversity of knowledge and experience brought by Bat Lab students, postdocs, technicians, collaborators, and staff is what makes Bat Nights so special. “Together, all of us create this mosaic–we all have our own specific bits of knowledge, and combined, we are able to share a really good background on the ecology, evolution, and behavior of bats. And, it’s just really fun.” 

Bat Night is held the first Sunday of every month from 6:30pm - 8:00pm at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute lab in Gamboa, Panama. To learn more about how you can attend this bilingual event, visit or email [email protected].
Panama is home to over 120 species of bats, some of the most striking of which are represented in this poster designed by Bat Lab doctoral student Imran Razik. Panama's bats are tremendously diverse in what they look like, how they live, and what they eat: from fruit, nectar, and insects, to fish, frogs, and blood. Imran Razik
Visit or email [email protected] to learn more about how you can attend Bat Night.  Steve Paton
All proceeds of bat-themed sticker and t-shirt sales go to the Kalko Fellowship Fund for Bat Research, a fellowship in honor and memory of bat researcher Elisabeth Kalko, that supports student bat research in the tropics. Imran Razik
The Gamboa Laboratory of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as it begins to fill with evening visitors joining Bat Night. Rachel Page