The pekapeka-tou-roa, New Zealand’s long-tailed bat, is special for many reasons.
Bats are the island nation’s only native land mammal and the pekapeka-tou-roa is just one of two surviving species in the country. Weighing about as much as a large grape, the winged creatures have disappeared from much of their traditional habitat and drawn fierce calls for their protection.
But one thing the pekapeka-tou-roa is not is a bird.
That’s the rub for the country’s Bird of the Year contest for 2021, which for the first time in its 16-year history included this bat. The annual competition, which highlights iconic, winged Kiwi species, seemed like the right fit to give the pekapeka (the Māori word for bat) some room to soar.
Laura Keown, a spokesperson for the contest, said the critically endangered mammals were included amid ongoing concerns about their conservation status.
“Since ‘mammal of the year’ was going to be a very boring competition we kind of decided to throw the bat among the pigeons and ruffle some feathers,” Keown said. “We’ve got these critically endangered bats, they only come out a night … they’re silent, they’re quite invisible to people, sometimes they can live adjacent to cities and people often don’t even know they’re there.”
“It’s been an idea that has been floating so we thought maybe the bats deserved a bit of attention,” she added.
The contest is run by Forest and Bird, a leading Kiwi conservation group, and involves a public vote on the internet. Past winners include the kākāpō, a type of green parrot that once tried to mate with a man’s head on the BBC, and the yellow-eyed penguin.
Like many of New Zealand’s native species, bats are extremely vulnerable to introduced predators like possums, stoats and rats, Keown said. Conservationists have long said these bats deserve similar attention afforded to emblematic bird species that also face extinction.
“Our bats and birds have both really taken a knock,” she said, noting young bats can often get “eaten while they sleep.” The other primary threat is ongoing habitat loss. About 75% of the country’s native forests have been destroyed since humans first came to the country.
“They love old trees, 100 years old and older, that’s where they have their roosts,” Keown said. “When the forests are lost, really a new regenerating forest isn’t a good habitat. They need those big old trees.”
Keown said the bats’ inclusion in the contest has largely been well-received by the Kiwi population, who take great joy in celebrating the country’s threatened species. Some sticks in the mud, however, have been a little more perturbed.
“I like to say that birds can be very territorial so they don’t want to see a mammal crowding out the attention that goes to the attention of our amazing native birds every year,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll come around to the view that protecting bats by protecting native forests also protects our birds.”
“Bats, birds and people, we’re all in it together,” she added.
The contest ends at 5 p.m. local time on October 31.