Buddy, can you spare a bat tooth?

It’s a cliché with which we are all familiar: having a bit of money is a good thing, but accumulating too much may well bring misfortune.

The old saw, however, has taken on a particularly resonant meaning for the people Makira, one of the Solomon Islands. The residents, who number fewer than 200, use an unusual form of currency when paying for special occasions: fruit bat teeth.

The bats (Pteropus tonganus) are, like many island populations of the species, endangered, and bat-hunting is a traditional pastime for the Makiri islanders. According to researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago, US, and Australia’s University of Queensland, however, the solution to the animals’ predicament does not lie in persuading the locals to stop killing them.

Rather, writes a team led by the Fields’ Tyrone Lavery, it is to encourage the islanders to reinforce their culture, including the use of teeth as money, to drive home the need for the species to be conserved.

“The practice of hunting bats shouldn’t necessarily be stopped, it needs to be managed sustainably,” says Lavery.

“The continuing use of traditional currency is something to be celebrated. It’s important for scientists to communicate with local hunters and say, these bats are important to your culture, but they’re also vulnerable.”

Conserving the bats brings much wider benefits that simply sustaining a single species, and ensuring the future of the ceremonial money supply. The islands are often hit by hurricanes, which can denude entire areas of plant and tree cover. The fruit bats are the primary vehicle by which seeds and nuts are distributed, thus driving revegetation.

Lavery was joined in his research by John Fasi, a scientist at the University of Queensland, who was born and bred on Makiri.

He says communication with the islanders is of paramount importance if the bats’ future is to be secured.

“Doing this study was fun — people think you are crazy to be asking about bats,” he says. “They see how abundant the bats are in the wild and have no knowledge that they are threatened.”

The study was published in the journal The Oryx.

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