July 15, 2019 | 73° F

Rutgers—Newark professor bats eyes at these nocturnal creatures

Photo by Rutgers.edu |

Angelo Soto Centeno, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers—Newark, studies bats in the Caribbean islands. 

Although bats are not the most popular field of study for most biology majors, Angelo Soto Centeno has always known he wanted to pursue the examination of these unique, nocturnal creatures. 

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Soto Centeno, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers—Newark, exhausted his free time outdoors, immersing himself in the interaction with all sorts of insects and animals, according to a Rutgers Today article. 

“My life is about bats, pretty much my favorite creature,” Soto Centeno said, according to the article. “There is something so intriguing about these mammals, one that many people living in America have never seen up close.”

Soto Centono’s research focuses on the extinction of the mammals, particularly in the Caribbean.  Out of more than 130 Caribbean mammal species that previously existed, only approximately 15 species of land-based mammals and 66 bat species remain today, according to the article. 

“What we are trying to determine is what makes these bats either vulnerable or very good survivors,” he said. 

His mission is to study bats alive today and the fossils of their ancestors to better understand the creatures, he said. 

Soto Centeno’s research takes him on adventures to tropical Caribbean Islands, including the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, according to the article. 

Part of his studies involve learning how evolutionary biology, the geographical distribution between plants and animals and climate change, affect the habitats and ecosystems, according to the article. In the Caribbean islands, more mammals have gone extinct over the last 20,000 years than anywhere else on the planet. 

“Although bats are resilient, on many islands the number of species has decreased by up to 50 percent over the last 1 to 4,000 years,” Soto Centeno said.

He explained that he plans on analyzing the past and researching the present to get a better vision of the future.

Soto Centeno said that although most people might not think about the study of bats as important, the species are a crucial part of the food-chain system and their extinction would notably impact the ecosystem. 

“Bats have a very diverse diet,” he said. 

Beyond eating insects, providing a natural pest control and preventing agricultural threats, bats pollinate mangoes and bananas and are the sole pollinators of the agave plant, which is used in the production of tequila, according to the article. 

“Bats get a bad rap, mostly because they are secretive creatures,” Soto Centeno said. “Humans are afraid of things unknown and because bats live in places that are feared, like caves, they are often seen as unworthy, bad animals that carry disease.”

Soto Centeno spends several hours everyday on bat hunts, from the morning to often times, past midnight. He said he understands the fear of the unknown, but regardless, he still immerses himself in exotic locations that this field requires him to trek, such as caves and dense forests. 

He and his team take on the adventures of the world most people deem dangerous, according to the article. They leave the comfort of their homes and face mosquitos, extreme weather conditions, poisonous plants and venomous animals all for the love of research, and to him, it is all worth it. 

He said that when he first received his doctoral degree in biology, his family was so proud because no one in his family had ever achieved that level of education before. 

Their excitement was quickly eclipsed with confusion, he said — they did not understand his work. They could not comprehend why a person with a doctorate degree in biology would be studying bats instead of people and the health of the population.

“They refer to me as Indiana Jones,” he said. “To them I might not be taking care of people but I have amazing adventures and inspire other people. That’s enough for me.”

Erica D'Costa

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