The New World’s two biggest bats are both carnivorous, preying upon animals like mice, frogs, and birds.
The woolly false vampire bat and the spectral bat, the latter of which can have a wingspan up to nearly three feet, generally avoid people; humans have nothing material to fear from them. Unless, of course, your intention is to get a good photograph. Shy, swift-moving mammals that mostly fly in darkness, they do not lend themselves to the limelight.
The assignment took him to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where researcher and National Geographic Explorer Rodrigo Medellín studies both species of carnivores, which are found throughout Central and South America.
In the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Varma found a roost of woolly false vampire bats living within an ancient Maya temple. He also tracked a group of spectral bats to a pair of nearby trees. (Related: “Can the Bat Man of Mexico also be Tequila's Super Hero?”)
Shots in the Dark
To prepare to take his photographs, Varma first studied the animals’ habits. He spent many nights at the temple, for instance, figuring out when the bats left their roost, and what flight path they took. “You need to know when to fire a flash, down to the millisecond,” Varma says.
But the animals were also sensitive—if he got too close, they would change their flight path for days or weeks. And he only had a single chance per animal, as they only leave once a night (before returning home many hours later).
He eventually settled on a setup in which he positioned a camera below an infrared sensor that would set off the flash and take a photo when the bat crossed its beam. (Get National Geographic’s tips for photographing wildlife.)
That way, “the bat is photographing itself,” he says.
Of course, that’s putting it a bit humbly. After each flash Varma would rush to the camera and a laptop to which it was connected, before tweaking the setup until he got it perfect. Arriving at each final photograph—one he could take pride in—took him about a week or more, he says.
The tree-roosting spectral bats were even more difficult to figure out. Unlike the bats at the temple, their flight paths weren’t constrained—and made more predictable—by stone walls.
What’s more, one of the trees that the animals roosted in seeped a poisonous sap, which Varma only discovered after he’d climbed it. He broke out in boils that sent him to the hospital and left scars on his arms—an unwitting souvenir of his experience with carnivorous bats.
Varma also photographed the animals studied by Medellín, who put his subjects in flight cages and observed them as they swooped down to devour mice.
Bats on the Wing
A Mexican free-tailed bat comes in for a close-up as it leaves its cave to hunt. Every night from March to October, 1.5 million of these bats stream out from beneath a bridge in downtown Austin, Texas.
In so doing, it quickly became apparent that the bats were intelligent, and had different personalities. They are not, in other words, just “scary creatures of the night,” Varma says.
Varma first fell in love with the natural world growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, where he often went hiking and camping. He originally planned to become a biologist, but in college discovered photography, and realized he could get paid to explore nature by taking pictures rather than gathering data.
Before his project with the bats, which he completed over the course of 5 trips and about 1.5 years, he also took videos of hummingbirds flying in slow motion and captured a timelapse of bees growing up inside a colony.
With bats and other animals he captures, Varma seeks to use his camera “to show aspects of the world that are hard to see with your naked eye.”
“I’m trying to peel back layers of complexity in our natural world and inspire a sense of curiosity about it.”