Category Archives: Public Science

Ecotourism Evaluations: Steps to Traveling With a Lighter Tread

A public science essay by Emma Cushing

 In the spring of 2020, I was on the cusp of a virgin voyage to Georgetown, Malaysia. With flights and hotel rooms booked and local “foodie” Instagram recommendations saved, I had but one item left on my to-do list: plan activities! I began my Google search with enthusiasm and intentionality. I would strive to find activities that upheld the principles of sustainable ecotourism I had recently learned about in one of my ecology classes. 

In recent years, a style of traveling called “ecotourism” has grown enormously in popularity. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (2015). This method of travel typically requires much less infrastructure than traditional travel, as it tends to rely on tents rather than resorts and hikes rather amusement parks. Due to this environmentally-friendly and low-cost setup, the local habitat remains preserved, and locals wishing to start a business can do so with limited funds. Although ecotourism sounds like a win-win for conscientious travelers who are passionate about seeing the world, the realities of the trend are a bit more grim.

            As I learned in class, many areas of the world are plagued by large corporations, such as resorts and tour companies, hiding behind the ecotourism brand in order to take advantage of its popularity. These businesses are often run by foreign operators who exploit local people and animals for economic gain. Even when businesses have good intentions, it can be hard to predict the detrimental effects that will befall the local community. Environmental, social, cultural, and financial impacts often harm the area tourists are aiming to preserve. When locals experience the dishonesty or harsh consequences of foreign ecotourism businesses, they lose trust and turn away from the industry as a whole. The result is a lack of cooperative efforts between native people and tourists that makes for an unpleasant living and traveling environment.

If you have ever ventured into a different community, whether that be one state over or halfway across the world, you know that entering unfamiliar territory can be intimidating and demands reverence for local ways. Likewise, if you have ever hosted visitors, you most likely expect them to show respect for your home and your family. Imagine you extend an open invitation for friends of friends to visit your hometown. These acquaintances then hire foreign guides, who have also only just arrived, for a tour of the area, even though you have lived here all your life. The tour guides are then generously paid to bring tourists to one or two of the most popular spots in town, where the tourists, who have not been educated in proper local etiquette, obliviously trample native foliage and scare endemic species with noise pollution. On top of all of this, the money these tour groups generate never enters the local economy– rather, the tour guides spend their salaries importing goods from back home and encourage tourists to spend money at foreign-owned restaurants. This scenario is unfortunately all too realistic in many parts of the world. For example, economics experts call the Cambodian tourism industry a “money-in, money-out” system. Despite the two million tourists descending upon the Angkor temples each year, a mere seven percent of tourism-generated revenue reaches the locals there, who have the lowest per capita income in the region (Becker 2017).

Not all ecotourism businesses are created alike, however. Some truly are operated by local people who reinvest profits into the local economy. They evenly distribute financial gains within the entire community, and they genuinely care for the species inhabiting the earth around them because this is, after all, their home. So how can you, as a conscientious traveller, discern between the good and the bad? Which businesses deserve your support and which should you avoid when traveling to a new destination?

            There are myriad aspects to consider when making your ultimate decision to be an ecotourist. Before traveling, delve into how the industry at the specific locale you plan to visit affects the social and cultural structure of the local people, how economic gains are distributed within the community, and how the business affects local, and especially endemic, wildlife. In addition, your own personal motive for participating in ecotourism is important to take into account.

            While it may be difficult to ascertain all of this information in every setting across the globe, even a small sense of the industry’s effects in the area you are traveling to is beneficial and can guide your gut feeling on whether or not to support tourist operations there. For example, if you were aware of the unfair financial distributions in Cambodia, you could actively seek out locally owned businesses to support during your trip. A little time spent digging can go a long way in uncovering the systematic inequalities that have become all too commonplace in the ecotourism industry.

            Before supporting a business, it is essential to first analyze its social and cultural effects on the local community. Frances Brown calls tourism a “two-way influence” in his book Tourism Reassessed: Blight or Blessing? Tourists gain knowledge of the culture they are visiting while  they inadvertently give locals a taste of their own culture (Brown 2011). The rise of globalism across the board has led to this merging of cultures, but many smaller communities resent the encroachment of foreign cultures, especially in regards to the consumerist and sometimes self-righteous attitudes of many travelers. In addition, local communities may not be equipped to handle the realities of foreign influences in much more tangible ways. For example, UCLA professor Dr. Alison Lipman performed a study in a small Bolivian municipality and observed that, as more travelers visited the town, local vendors began importing a larger quantity of plastic items to sell these travelers without any formal method for disposing of the additional trash created. This led to an increase in burning trash, which emits huge amounts of carcinogenic greenhouse gases into the environment and contributes to climate change. Alongside the introduction of plastics, Westernized attitudes and styles of dress became especially popular for the teenagers within the town, who began rebelling against their cultural norms and rejecting the traditions of their families (Lipman 2020). While individuals should have the ability to choose their own lifestyles, it is tragic to see unique cultures lose their identities in order to assimilate and cater to the cultural norms of visitors.

            In terms of my own trip, I read about the incredible intersection of cultures within Georgetown, Malaysia– centuries of colonization and immigration had left the city an eclectic mix of Muslim Malay, Indian, Chinese, and English contributions. I planned to visit a few of the temples, mosques, churches and shrines around the city and Googled the customs for entering each place of worship. I compared the local practices to various tour companies to see which were taking into account and respecting this intersection of cultures. Many of the websites offering tours of these landmarks lacked any mention of the customs I had found, but through my search I was able to find a locally-operated guide service whose first FAQ emphasized that the tour would not begin if each tourist were not dressed appropriately. Knowing this business was committed to preventing disruption of the local culture, I booked my tour.

Before setting off on your trip, reading up on local customs and practices will be beneficial to ensuring you are not disrupting the community with your visit. You can then research any businesses on the degree to which they adhere to these practices to decide whether or not you would like to support them. If the information is not listed on their website, you can even call or email the company with your questions.

            The second step of your ecotourism evaluation is one of the harder pieces of the puzzle to uncover: the distribution of wealth within the community. An ecotourism business in which all profits made off of the local community land in the laps of foreign CEOs is not sustainable. The local economy will suffer as it is drained of resources without seeing any monetary returns. One way to look into the financial details of an ecotourism business is outlined by Ogutu et. al in their 2002 analysis of ecotourism in Kenya. Ogutu used data from large ecotourism companies in the area to quantify employment rates, types of individuals employed, and human conflicts among other categories in the hopes of determining how widespread the industry’s impacts on the local community were (Ogutu 2002). The categories Ogutu outlined in his analysis serve as good benchmarks for evaluating whether or not the ecotourism business you are considering is being managed properly and is providing equal and widespread positive benefits. When inequality is present, such as in the Kenyan locality Ogutu explored, the community suffers, and tensions ignited by this inequality can lead to dangerous situations for tourists caught in the middle of the aggression.

            I went about the process of exploring this second factor in Georgetown by scrutinizing the websites of tour companies I was interested in. If the website mentioned that the tours would be led by a guide native to the city, that the company was owned by locals, or that the profits from tours were directly invested back into the local economy, I felt comfortable supporting the company. I also double-checked that the restaurant recommendations I had gathered from Instagram were locally-owned to ensure my money would go directly into the hands of people native to the area.

            While this type of economic data is not always readily available to the general public, company websites usually list at least some form of information about their employees. You can also call the company to ask what percentage of employees are locals. In addition, doing some research about the region’s per-capita income and asking for restaurant and store recommendations from people who live in the area are wonderful steps towards ensuring your money ends up in local hands. As an added bonus, you’ll most likely end up enjoying the region’s most authentic dishes and exploring beautiful areas most tourists unknowingly fail to see.

            The third and probably most apparent area to evaluate when considering supporting an ecotourism business is how that business affects the native wildlife. In theory, ecotourism is a much less harmful way to travel as it requires less infrastructure than classic tourism and therefore preserves the natural state of the ecosystem. In the most successful cases of ecotourism, species populations are actually restored and bolstered, such as in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. At the Conservancy, profits from ecotourism have been reinvested to create a protected environment for endangered rhinos and zebras whose populations have risen 650 percent (Lewa 2017). However, the logistics of ecotourism can have a severe negative impact on the very biodiversity it attempts to preserve. For example, ecotourism along the St. Lawrence River necessitates increased nautical traffic as boat tours take tourists to observe the pods of beluga whales that call the river home. Profits from these tours are put towards conservation efforts. Upon further analysis, however, researchers Blane and Jaakson found that the ecotourism traffic led to reduced feeding grounds, lowered nursing rates, and a loss of pod integrity for the beluga whales (Blane 1994). It seems counter-intuitive to put ecotourism profits towards fixing a problem that the ecotourism created or perpetuated itself.

            In planning my trip, I was most excited about the opportunity to interact with elephants, my favorite animal. I wanted to ensure that any company I paid to help me achieve this dream was completely ethical and in no way harmed the environment or the animals themselves. I found many instances of elephant interaction that basically functioned as zoos: elephants were subjected to thousands of visitors a day and kept in enclosures on the ground they used to walk freely. After a long online search, I finally discovered an elephant rehabilitation facility that allowed tourists to serve as volunteers for the day. I could pay to help wash and feed the elephants, who had been taken into the facility because of injuries or other inabilities to function in the wild. My money would go towards maintenance of the facility and ongoing conservation efforts for the elephants. This was the ideal scenario for me.

            In planning your own trip, you may not be able to find such a benevolent organization. That is okay– there are plenty of other factors you can look into to ensure your activities won’t harm native species. Research the natural ways of life for the flora and fauna in the area, and try to minimize any disruptions to their everyday existence. One of the best ways to do this is to choose activities centered around passive observation of the plants and animals surrounding you. Another way is to support companies that hire locals and focus their efforts on conservation rather than zoos or safaris that carve asphalt roads into the habitats these animals need to survive. You can typically find information about where profits go on the “About Us” page of most company’s websites. If companies are truly aimed towards conservation, they will most likely offer data and statistics as proof of the positive impacts they have made on their community. If this information is not available, it is likely a red flag that the organization is not truly accomplishing what they may claim to be.

            The final, and most often overlooked, aspect to consider before embarking on a journey is what you personally hope to gain from your trip. If you are open to gaining knowledge and widening your perspective, ecotourism can be a wonderful opportunity to do just that. In a recent study by Lee and Moscardo, researchers measured the awareness, involvement and enthusiasm for conservation practices of tourists before and after participating in the activities at an Australian ecotourism center. They reported a positive impact on visitors, finding that most people felt more knowledgeable and passionate about becoming involved with conservation efforts after their visits (Lee 2005). Whether visitors were inspired to visit more native gardens or donate to preservation initiatives, the positive effects of their experience helped further the important goal of maintaining the beauty and biodiversity of our planet for generations to come. If an ecotourism business is truly operating in accordance with the sustainable values outlined in the ecotourism definition, it will expand your worldview and provide you with invaluable knowledge about the local community of people and animals. This insight is a gift that appeals to many travellers and will hopefully motivate you to search for businesses that are truly on the right operational track.

            Ecotourism as a concept is an incredibly beneficial way to travel in terms of encouraging an awareness of and a passion for conservation efforts, supporting biodiversity preservation, and increasing cash flow into communities that are often disadvantaged. In practice, however, many ecotourism companies miss the mark, whether accidentally causing more harm than good or purposefully focusing on profits rather than benefits for the local community. It can be hard to detect the differences between businesses that benefit their local communities and those with detrimental effects, especially because these effects often lie on a spectrum. However, as you jet off to your next exotic vacation or even road-trip to a forest mere hours away, consider the effects of your actions on the plants, animals, and human beings you encounter. Do a little research into where your finances are going. Knowing your money is doing more good than harm and that local people are benefiting from your trip just as much as you are will allow you to enjoy fun tourist activities while simultaneously feeling altruistic about your impact.

Works Cited

Becker, Elizabeth. 2017. “The Big Idea: How Tourism Can Destroy The Places We Love.” The Daily Beast, July 11, 2017.

Blane, Jean M., and Reiner Jaakson. “The Impact of Ecotourism Boats on the St Lawrence Beluga Whales.” Environmental Conservation, no. 3 (1994): 267-69. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0376892900033282.

Brown, Frances. Tourism Reassessed: Blight or Blessing?. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2011. International Ecotourism Society. 2015. “What is Ecotourism?” Accessed May 23, 2020.

Lee, Won H., and Gianna Moscardo. “Understanding the Impact of Ecotourism Resort Experiences on Tourists’ Environmental Attitudes and Behavioural Intentions.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, no. 13 (2005): 546-565. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1080/09669580508668581.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. 2017. “Lewa Wildlife Conservancy 2017 Impact Report.” Accessed May 23, 2020.

Lipman, Alison. “Sustainability & Ecotourism” Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 116: Conservation Biology. Class lecture at University of California, Los Angeles, January 16, 2020.

Ogutu, Z.A. “The impact of ecotourism on livelihood and natural resource management in Eselenkei, Amboseli Ecosystem, Kenya.” Land Degradation & Development, no. 13 (2002): 251-256. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1002/ldr.502

The mutually Toxic Relationship Between Mexican Free-Tailed Bats and Humans

A public science essay written and illustrated by Jessalyn Smith

The Mexican free-tailed bat looks like a gargoyle.  There is no sugar-coating it, this species pales in comparison to the puppy-like fruit bat or the world’s smallest mammal, the bumblebee bat.  However, they do not have the startling ears of Townsend’s big-eared bat or the reputation of the vampire bat that makes them stand out among the scientific order of gargoyles.  Their fur is typically on the muddy end of brown, and their lips are wrinkled like the ridges of a pecan.  Their large ears are stubby and rounded.  The tail that gives them their name extends past the tail membrane and almost looks like a third leg; the only thing it’s missing is a foot.  But despite all these unappealing features, they come together in an “it’s so ugly it’s cute” kind of way.  The fluffy gargoyles of the sky won’t win any beauty competitions, but they certainly make up for their looks in the talent portion.                                                 

Fig. 1. Taubert, Bruce D. n.d. Photograph. Arizona Highways.

This species of bat is an insectivore, meaning they eat the wasps and other bugs you would rather pretend don’t exist.  Their diet varies by region but primarily includes airborne insects due to their method of travel.  However, they will stray from their typical diet if necessary, like in cases of high competition.  Competing for food drives the Mexican free-tailed bat to fly at least 50 miles away from its home (also referred to as a “roost”) in order to find food (Tuttle, 1994).  Since they fly at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and altitudes over 10,000 feet, the Mexican free-tailed bat can be difficult to track and watch their every move, but it is known that an individual bat can eat its two-thirds of its own body weight (about 12.5 grams) in bugs over the course of one night (Tuttle 1994).  Alone this may seem unimpressive but considering the Bracken Cave colony consists of about 20 million bats, the number of bugs eaten in one night really starts to add up.

Fig. 2. From left to right: Fruit Bat, Bumblebee Bat, Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat, Vampire Bat

            The appetite of a Mexican free-tailed bat colony is worth approximately $741,000 per year due to the consumption of agricultural pests.  The monetary value was calculated by looking at the profits lost due to crop consumption and the cost of alternative forms of pesticide that would be necessary over a 10,000 acre agricultural region (Cleveland et al. 2006).  The most notorious agricultural pest in the studied region is the cotton bollworm, a moth whose larvae can destroy cotton, tomato, and corn crops and whose population is difficult to control.  The bollworm lays its eggs on the leaves or near the fruit of a plant, and the hatched larvae will burrow inside and mine the plant, ruining the crop (“Cotton Insects” 2013).  By eating the adult moths, bats prevent the adults from laying more eggs and continuing to bolster the population of ravenous larvae.  According to an article published in the “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,” an average bat’s consumption of 1.5 bollworms in one night prevents five eggs

from being laid (Cleveland et al. 2006).  The Mexican free-tailed bat can provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in pest control services based on the cost of lost crops and the price of pesticides that would be needed without the presence of bats.

            After a long night of eating bugs and protecting crops, what goes in must come out.  The bat guano industry is not commonly thought about, but it’s incredibly bountiful.  The most obvious use for bat droppings is as a natural fertilizer, similar to the use of cow manure. Guano is high in nutrients and contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are nutrients that are useful for improving plant growth and strong stems.  The guano can even help improve the texture of soils that are too loose or too dense due to the presence of beneficial microbes in the droppings that improve the water-holding capacity and presence of air-holes (Koski 2015).   Additionally, guano can be used as a fungicide and to control nematodes.  These agricultural services are possible due to the abundance of bacteria and microorganisms in the droppings that break down the unwanted garden intruders through decomposition and the production of enzymes.  Even though tons of guano are available due to the size of bat colonies, farmers don’t use as much because of its ability to persist in the soil after application (Koski 2015).  Guano is more difficult to wash away than the typical inorganic gardening products, meaning the multitude of benefits are not easily lost during a rainstorm or poisoning the runoff that enters nearby water sources.  Guano is safer than chemical-based agricultural products and provides services that would normally require multiple inorganic products.

Bats should be a farmer’s best friend, but they aren’t treated that way.  Instead, humans have poisoned the bats through the use of pesticides, which has been connected to population decline in bats.  Organochlorine (OC) pesticides, including the infamous and widely discontinued insecticide DDT, have been shown to accumulate in organisms due to their incorporation into the living tissues after consumption, also known as bioaccumulation (Clark 2001).  OC content increases as you go further up the food chain since the predators have to eat more organisms that contain pesticide residue in order to sustain themselves.  This process is also referred to as biomagnification.  This class of pesticides is also very resistant to degradation and evidence of its usage can still be found decades after the last application.  Scientists have found DDT in the fat stores of mammals, such as the Mexican free-tailed bat. 

Even if the initial exposure does not prove to be fatal, breaking down fats during the migration process can lead to toxins entering the nervous system.  It once again accumulates in the living tissue of the brain since it is not able to pass back through the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that selectively protects the brain tissue from solutes in the bloodstream.  This buildup of toxins can lead to potential neurological effects, such as spontaneous neuron firing and spasms (Thies, Thies, and McBee 1995).  The barrier is similar to the wasp traps where the insects can enter but are unable to find the exit due to the structure of the container.  Without a usable outlet, the wasps begin to pile up inside the trap and make it unable to properly function.  Female bats are able to rid themselves of the toxins through lactation, which are then passed on to the offspring, adding to the number of individuals affected (Thies, Thies, and McBee 1995).  Males do not have the luxury of breastfeeding a child and are left with continuously increasing levels of toxins in their bodies.  Man-made mistakes are proving to be costly to the Mexican free-tailed bat, even though their presence has actively been saving the agricultural industry money.

            Even though the Mexican free-tailed bat is the last thing on people’s minds when applying dangerous chemicals, their presence is widely noted when a city can economically benefit from them through ecotourism.  People line the Congress Avenue Bridge and the nearby banks of the Lady Bird Lake in Austin to watch the 1.5 million bats fly out at sunset (Bat Conservation International n.d.).  Boat tours profit from this spectacle, and national parks containing bats make money off ticket sales.   Not to mention, the local economy is supported by the travel expenses incurred by tourists.  Most bat activities occur during the evening, making it more convenient to stay in a hotel if you don’t live nearby.  Of course, there’s always the need for food and transportation or gas if you’re on a long trip.  From personal experience, I know that some cavern-based attractions embody the “ride ends in the gift shop” mentality, which encourages people to spend even more money.  The consumer surplus due all these expenditures brought about by bats was estimated to be about $6.5 million in the southwestern United States (Bagstad and Wiederholt 2013).  Even if a business is not directly related to the ecotourism of the Mexican free-tailed bats, they can still benefit due to the influx of outside spending.

            If you are interested in spotting these beautiful creatures, Mexican free-tailed bats primarily make their roosts in the southwestern region of North America through Central America and partially into northern South America.  Most of these individuals are migratory, but a few will remain in their summer home through the winter in the western United States (Tuttle 1994).  Their ideal roosting locations include caves and hollow trees, as well as buildings, bridges and abandoned mines.  Nursery colonies can contain millions of bats in a single location.  There can be 400 pups per square foot on average, looking more like a swarm of bees than roosting bats (Tuttle 1994). With such dense populations, colonies emerging from caves or structures look like thick plumes of smoke, signaling the locations of even the lesser-known sites to people nearby.  In contrast, the bachelor colonies are much smaller, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred individuals (Tuttle 1994).  Even though they are seemingly less impressive in scale, watching each bat dive from their lofted home into the open air is just as breathtaking as the flurry of wings of larger colonies. 

It’s no secret that humans have been displacing animals through deforestation and other forms of ecological intervention, and the Mexican free-tailed bats are no exception.  The reduction of natural roosting sites has forced the bats into man-made structures.  Some colonies would roost in abandoned mines, but as these structures are destroyed, killing the bats trapped inside and preventing future colonies from developing there, the bats have moved to urban areas (Bellwood and Waugh 1991). 

Bats tend to favor human-free buildings in low-income neighborhoods, likely due to the lack of visitation and maintenance that would make the building inaccessible to the flying mammals or remove the colony directly.  The stereotype of an abandoned, tall building  being filled with bats is not totally inaccurate.  Structural damage can make the building more accessible for roosting, and the height of the ceilings can make it more difficult to remove the colony (Li and Kenneth 2015).  Resources are also an important factor in choosing a roosting site.  The Mexican free-tailed bats prefer buildings that are close to water and free of obstructing vegetation.  The lights of the city can even help provide a food source as bugs gather around the brighter spaces (Li and Kenneth 2015).  However, these sites are not entirely safe.  With the enactment of more urban renovation projects, many roosts are being removed and potential homes being demolished (Li and Kenneth 2015).  While these projects aren’t necessarily a bad thing, it is important that we create alternative homes for the displaced Mexican free-tailed bats and don’t leave them with a dwindling number of suitable habitats.

As the Mexican free-tailed bats start to intermingle with humans more often, it is reasonable to be concerned about the potential disease transfer that can occur.  Bats are commonly viewed as vectors for devastating viruses such as rabies and various coronaviruses.  The impact of such viruses when transferred to humans can be worsened due to the heightened immune system of their bat hosts, making  it more memorable when bats are  identified as the source of an outbreak.  Their defense systems cause the virus to adapt more quickly, while the host remains asymptomatic or minimally affected (Cottier 2020).  The protein responsible for signalling cells to fortify against an imminent attack, called interferon-alpha, is basically the Paul Revere of the immune system.  It is abundant in the bats’ immune system, leaving viruses to remain in the host without causing major health issues.  However, there are some side effects that typically limit the amount of the protein found in other mammals.  Interferon-alpha causes inflammation as it passes through the body, which can become dangerous in high amounts.  However, the way the bat’s immune system evolved minimizes inflammation, allowing the protein to flood the body and fortify the immune system at a high level (Cottier 2020).  While this is beneficial for the bat host, it causes some serious damage when passed on to a different species.  The human encroachment on bats and their habitat causes the bats to excrete more virus-containing waste, putting people at a higher risk (Cottier 2020).  Humans amplify the problem.  Why should the bats take all the blame?  It’s like poking a sleeping bear and acting surprised when it chases you.

It would be naive to think that habitat destruction is only affecting the human immune system.  White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that affects multiple species of bats and is connected to large-scale population decline.  The Mexican free-tailed bats remain asymptomatic, but they can spread the disease to other species as they share roosts.  Hibernating bats are the most vulnerable(“Bats Affected by WNS” n.d.).  The fungus is associated with individuals waking up during hibernation, severely depleting their energy stores that were supposed to last through the winter, and many infected bats die from starvation or dehydration.  As more roosting sites are destroyed, bat colonies are forced to find homes closer together, increasing the transmission of White Nose Syndrome (Meierhofer et al. 2018).  Important pest-controlling and pollinating bats will be unable to perform their ecological jobs as the fungus spreads further across the United

States into more colonies, causing ecosystems as we know them to change beyond recognition.

            The Mexican free-tailed bats are our friends.  However, it is best to maintain a safe distance from bats, especially if an individual is active during the day and likely diseased.  Animal control services can be called to properly remove an infected bat from the area without putting people nearby in danger.  If you want to attract bats, instead of get rid of them, building a bat box can be an effective way to bring the fascinating creatures to your own backyard.  You can even see a nightly show of the bats swooping through the air, almost too fast to see, and hear their reassuring chirps that tell you that your garden will be protected throughout the night.  If you really want to help the bats and keep yourself safe from potential disease, there is one crucial piece of advice to follow based on historical events.  DON’T. EAT. THE. BATS!


Bagstad, Kenneth  J. and Ruscena Wiederholt 2013. Tourism Values for Mexican Free-Tailed Bat Viewing, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 18:4, 307-311, DOI: 10.1080/10871209.2013.789573

“Bats Affected by WNS.” n.d. White-Nose Syndrome Response Team. Accessed June 6.

Bellwood, Jacqueline J., and Rachel J. Waugh. 1991. “Bats and Mines: Abandoned Does Not Always Mean Empty.” BATS Magazine Article: Bats and Mines: Abandoned Does Not Always Mean Empty. Bats Conservation International.

Clark, D. R. 2001. “DDT and the Decline of Free-Tailed Bats ( Tadarida Brasiliensis ) at Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico.” Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 40 (4): 537–43. doi:10.1007/s002440010207.

Cleveland, Cutler J., Margrit Betke, Paula Federico, Jeff D. Frank, Thomas G. Hallam, Jason Horn, Juan D. López, et al. 2006. “Economic Value of the Pest Control Service Provided by Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats in South-Central Texas.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4 (5): 238–43. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2006)004[0238:evotpc];2.

“Congress Avenue Bridge.” 2020. Congress Avenue Bridge. Bat Conservation International. Accessed June 6. summer night, hundreds of,a better place to live.

Cottier, Cody. 2020. “Why Bats Are Breeding Grounds for Deadly Diseases Like Ebola and SARS.” Discover Magazine. Discover Magazine. February 28.

“Cotton Insects.” 2013. Department of Entomology. Kansas State University.

Koski, Michael. 2015. “Bat Poop, Possibly the World’s Best Fertilizer.” Get Bats Out. November 10.

Li, Han, and Kenneth T. Wilkins. 2015. “Selection of Building Roosts by Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (Tadarida Brasiliensis) in an Urban Area.” Acta Chiropterologica 17 (2): 321–30. doi:10.3161/15081109acc2015.17.2.007.

Meierhofer, Melissa B., Hsiao-Hsuan Wang, William E. Grant, John H. Young, Lauren H. Johnston, Lilianna K. Wolf, Jonah W. Evans, Brian L. Pierce, Joseph M. Szewczak, and Michael L. Morrison. 2018. “Use of Box-Beam Bridges as Day Roosts by Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (Tadarida Brasiliensis) in Texas.” Southeastern Naturalist 17 (4): 605. doi:10.1656/058.017.0410.

Thies, M.L., K, Thies and K. McBee. 1995. “Organochlorine Pesticide Accumulation and Genotoxicity in Mexican Free-Tailed Bats from Oklahoma and New Mexico” Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 30: 178-187.

Tuttle, Merlin D. 1994. “The Lives of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats.” BATS Magazine Article: THE LIVES OF Mexican Free-Tailed Bats. Bat Conservation International. free-tails typically live,of droppings that they produce.

The Psychology of Commitment: What It Is and How to Make It Last

A public science essay by Jacy Black

It’s the phrase a love-sick partner never wants to hear said about their significant other; a phrase uttered by ornery grandmothers everywhere when another year of dating passes without someone ‘popping the question’:

 “They’ve got commitment issues.”

With the changing nature of family dynamics and relationships in the technological age, successful marriages in the 21st century have become something of a mystery. How do previous experiences shape future commitment? What is considered in commitment, and how does it last through decades of married life? These topics have exasperated young people and married couples for decades. In a world where “commitment issues” are offered as an explanation for the prevalence of causal relationships and divorce, how do we know what commitment is and how to make it last?

Defining Commitment. Commitment in relationship psychology is a construct that is defined differently depending on the nature of the study. According to Tran and Simpson (2009), “it entails a concern for the future and stability of the relationship along with the desire for the relationship to continue,” (p. 687). Though typically commitment is seen as a positive thing, Rusbult et al. (1991) note in their research this is not always the case. Commitment encompasses a wide variety of factors that bind individuals together in a relationship, whether or not a relationship is a healthy one (p. 56). 

Childhood Attachment Styles. Even before Harry Met Sally, psychology tells us that childhood development has an impact on later relationships. Attachment theory, according to Bowlby (1973), proposes that interactions with a caregiver tell the infant important information regarding the caregiver’s reliability and accessibility (as cited in Cassidy & Berlin, 1994, p.972). The emotional bond to the caregiver is formed from this information, depending on the quality of the caregiving. When caregivers are inconsistent, infants are more likely to express anxiety and negativity upon separation and reunion to the caregiver, called anxious/ambivalent attachment (Cassidy & Berlin, 1994, p. 982). When caregivers are rejecting, infants are likely to show anxious/avoidant attachment styles, marked by little distress at separation and avoidance behavior upon reunion (Crittenden & Ainsworth, 1989, p. 439). 

These patterns also tend to extend beyond childhood, as research shows the caregiver-infant bond can inform later connections with romantic partners. According to Fletcher et al. (2015),“the bonding and commitment components of adult romantic love are remarkably similar to the love between parents and infants,” (p. 24) including a strong longing to be around one another, discomfort when unable to see one other for long periods, and a keen awareness of the others’ needs. 

These similarities are not the extent of the connection between childhood and later relationships, however. A 2011 study conducted by Oriña et al. followed participants long-term; observing interactions with their mothers at age two, resolving a conflict with a peer at age sixteen, and completing a relationship measure with their partner at age 20-21. The study demonstrated that poor parenting in childhood (less supportive and sensitive, more intrusive) or diminished conflict resolution as a teenager (less willing to compromise, less effective approach) increased the likelihood of an individual being the lesser-committed partner in an adult relationship (Oriña et al., 2011, pp. 911-912). 

More specifically, maladaptive attachment styles (such as anxious/avoidant or anxious/ambivalent) or negative experiences in relationships can influence an individual’s interpretation and response to current and future relationships in ways that may be harmful (Tran & Simpson, 2009). Tran and Simpson explain, “for example, insecurely attached individuals may anticipate negative reactions or behaviors from their romantic partners, perceive greater partner negativity or mal-intent, overreact to those perceptions, and then unwittingly evoke negative behaviors from their partners,” (2009, p. 687). Simply put, these individuals expect  their partners to behave negatively and thus feel less committed to the relationship. As attachment styles are formed in response to caregiver interactions, this provides a mechanism to explain how upbringing and past experience can impact commitment. 

 However, it is important to remember that no individual is doomed by their past. Being in a committed relationship can also help ease the anxieties of an insecurely attached individual, allowing them to potentially avoid negative actions and promote more substantive and healthy relationships (Kelly, 1987, as cited in Tran & Simpson, 2009, p.687). As Tran and Simpson describe, relationship commitment can “buffer” against the effects of negative experiences in childhood and young adulthood.

What Influences Commitment? Although childhood attachment styles and prior experiences influence commitment, dependence upon a relationship is more directly associated with other factors. Interdependence Theory states that commitment is determined by the level of satisfaction experienced in the relationship, the “quality of available alternatives”, and investment size (Rusbult, 1998, as cited in Mattingly, 2008). As an individual becomes more dependent upon a relationship’s benefits and resources, they tend to become more committed to the relationship as well (Rusbult, 1998, p.360).

Relationship Satisfaction. Relationship satisfaction refers to an individual’s assessment of whether their needs are met in a relationship, which can include “intellectual, companionate, and sexual needs” (Rusbult, 1998, p. 359). Relationship satisfaction shows a positive relationship to commitment, as the more an individual feels their needs are met in a relationship, the more dependent they become and the more committed they feel.

A study conducted by Guilbault and Philippe (2017) confirmed this point. Researchers asked the participants to think about a positive memory they considered important to their relationship. They then asked their partners to assess the degree to which that memory satisfied their needs and to rate the memory’s importance. It was found that the partner’s assessment of their need satisfaction in the memory was associated with their commitment to the relationship (Guilbault & Philippe, 2017, pp. 598-603).

This makes sense. Especially early on in a relationship, we’re trying to figure out what we gain from being with a partner and whether or not the relationship is worth our time and energy. If we feel that a partner can provide us with the things we consider important, we are more likely to feel increased dependence upon that relationship and increased commitment as a result.  

Quality of Available Alternatives. Another component of commitment, according to Interdependence Theory, is our assessment of available alternatives. Rusbult (1998) defines the quality of alternatives as “the perceived desirability of the best available alternative to the relationship,”(p. 359). According to Rusbult, the quality of alternatives depends upon the degree to which a person’s needs could be satisfied outside of the relationship, such by friends, family members, other possible partners, or individually. This allows us to assess and compare our relationship to other options and determine how much we want to stay. This works in conjunction with relationship satisfaction; when an individual is satisfied with their relationship and they think the alternatives are worse, they’re more likely to be dependent (Rusbult, 1998, p.359). But, when an individual is unhappy in the relationship and sees “plenty of fish in the sea”, they are less so. 

Once we are, in fact, committed – a mechanism called “devaluing alternatives” kicks in. In one of several studies conducted by Johnson and Rusbult (1989), participants currently involved in a relationship were asked to rate the attractiveness of several individuals by their photographs, under the guise of research for an online dating service. These ratings were compared to questionnaire answers regarding the participants’ current relationship satisfaction and commitment. Through this comparison, it was found that more committed partners were more likely to rate the photographs as less attractive, also known as “devaluing the alternatives”. This finding was especially likely when the alternative was very attractive and deemed to be a bigger threat. Further studies by Johnson and Rusbult extend and further this work, asserting that “commitment fairly clearly mediates tendencies to devalue alternatives,”(1989, p.978), and devaluing alternatives is most likely a response to threats to commitment. Although relationship satisfaction does have its role in influencing devaluing alternatives, commitment was demonstrated as the more dominant force in these studies.

Assessing the quality of alternatives, as discussed earlier, could be seen as wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side. However, once someone wants to stay in a relationship (i.e. they are highly committed), they don’t look for opportunities to leave. Instead, the other pastures start to look less green.

Investment Size. There is one more piece to the puzzle. Rusbult (1998) asserts that investment size, or the significance and amount of resources tied to a relationship, can explain why not all committed relationships are healthy or happy ones. The idea says that the resources we gain from a relationship are taken into consideration when assessing commitment. Different types of resources can accompany a relationship, whether financial assets like property or relational resources like family, friends, and children. Rusbult (1998) says this could explain why individuals stay in unhappy, or abusive, relationships– a partner could be invested in, reliant upon, or not willing to lose the associated resources.

Wisdom of an Older Generation. Relationships psychology provides us with a valuable framework with which to approach these topics, but is there something still missing from the conversation? The findings of psychological research have definite merit and value, but there are still many lessons to learn from older generations who have fought for their marriages. The voices I value most on these topics are those of my grandparents, who speak with the experience of a long and successful marriage. When asked about commitment in relationships – this is what they had to say. 

“Love is about self-sacrifice,” my grandfather said simply as I asked him to share the culmination of his knowledge on the subject. Considering the fifty years they’ve spent in a loving, committed marriage, there is much I have yet to learn. “It’s being more interested in the other person’s happiness than your own…you don’t really know what love is until your satisfaction, for one reason or another, is challenged or diminished,” ( G. Black, personal communication, May 29, 2020).  Listening to his wise words, I was struck by how this view was contrary to a focus on self-satisfaction. Indeed, my grandfather proposed that it was not your happiness that matters most, but the happiness of those you care for—a sentiment very much in opposition to a Western, 21st-century view that epitomizes personal happiness. My grandfather continued, “I think people leave marriages these days because when they don’t get what they want, they find they’re not as interested in their partner over themselves.”

He may be onto something. Psychological research confirms that healthy self-sacrifice is beneficial to relationships more generally, improving relationship quality and diminishing conflict (Impett et al., 2005, p.340). However, I can’t help wondering if my grandfather’s insights signify a bigger mindset difference between the “Boomers” and the infamous Gen-Z with regard to commitment. Increased gender equality in relationships, the explosion of online dating, the rise of casual relationships, and diminished barriers to divorce have changed the rules of engagement, to say the least. The quality of available alternatives has flipped on its head as the dating pool has expanded infinitely, the U.S. maintains that 40-50% of marriages end in divorce (“Marriage & Divorce”, n.d.), and “hookup culture” is the buzzword on college campuses. Modern dating seems to place greater emphasis on personal needs and satisfaction in determining commitment in relationships, rather than viewing commitment as an act of self-sacrifice like my grandfather. This is something I believe deserves attention.

If one of the factors involved in commitment is need satisfaction, then commitment may naturally experience greater turbulence over time as greater stress is experienced, and as the physicality in a relationship changes with age. Self-sacrifice is beneficial to relationships, as are assessments of personal desires and satisfaction that impact commitment (according to the Investment Model). Perhaps this new generation must grapple with where the line is, between advocating for one’s personal needs and sacrificing for the needs of others. Then, healthy, committed relationships may form that both benefit from and overcome the challenges of dating in the 21st-century. 


Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss. Volume II. Separation anxiety and anger.

Cassidy, J., & Berlin, L. J. (1994). The Insecure/ Ambivalent Pattern of Attachment: Theory and Research. Child Development, 65(4), 971–991.

Crittenden, P. M., & Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1989). Child maltreatment and attachment theory. In D. Cicchetti & V. Carlson (Eds.), Child Maltreatment (1st ed., pp. 432–463). Cambridge University Press.

Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love, and Evolution: The Curious Case of Homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(1), 20–36.

Guilbault, V., & Philippe, F. L. (2017). Commitment in romantic relationships as a function of partners’ encoding of important couple-related memories. Memory, 25(5), 595–606.

Impett, E. A., Gable, S. L., & Peplau, L. A. (2005). Giving up and giving in: The costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(3), 327–344.

Johnson, D. J., & Rusbult, C. E. (1989). Resisting Temptation: Devaluation of Alternative Partners as a Means of Maintaining Commitment in Close Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 14.

Marriage & Divorce. (n.d.). Retrieved June 05, 2020, from

Mattingly, B. A. (2008). The effects of motivated sacrifice on relationship quality [Ph.D., Saint Louis University]. In ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Oriña, M. M., Collins, W. A., Simpson, J. A., Salvatore, J. E., Haydon, K. C., & Kim, J. S. (2011). Developmental and Dyadic Perspectives on Commitment in Adult Romantic Relationships. Psychological Science, 22(7), 908–915.

Rusbult, C. E., Martz, J. M., & Agnew, C. R. (1998). The Investment Model Scale: Measuring commitment level, satisfaction level, quality of alternatives, and investment size. Personal Relationships, 5(4), 357–387.

Rusbult, C. E., Verette, J., Whitney, G. A., Slovik, L. F., & Lipkus, I. (1991). Accommodation processes in close relationships: Theory and preliminary empirical evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(1), 53–78.

Tran, S., & Simpson, J. A. (2009). Prorelationship maintenance behaviors: The joint roles of attachment and commitment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 685–698.