Workbench The Real Bat Cave

Oliver Sacks portrait by Doron Gild

Nancy B. Simmons is the chair of the vertebrate zoology division and curator-in-charge in the mammalogy department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Interview by Lee Billings / Photograph by Reynard Li

Landscapes

The painting came with the office. It's actually a background sketch for a diorama. The museum used to send artists out into the field to paint real places and collect plants and images of the scenery to make the dioramas as accurate as possible.

Bat Signal

This is a stuffed flying fox, a museum mount from one of the old exhibition halls. I was getting it out so often to show people that I decided just to hang it on the light fixture! You can't see it from here, but it's got metal meshwork on the back of the wings to hold them in place.

Top Prize

I received this plaque when I was given the Gerrit S. Miller Award from the North American Society for Bat Research. It's a major honor in my profession because of all the history behind it. It was a very big deal, and I'm very proud of it. They give it out every couple of years.

New Species?

That's a picture someone sent me of a bat caught in Belize. I think it's an unknown species, but all we have of it is this one photograph; it's never been captured again. I'm hoping someone will email saying they've caught and preserved another one for confirmation.

Gloomy Forecast

Something called White Nose Syndrome is killing many thousands of bats in the northeastern US. We don't know what causes it, but a white fungus grows on many of the bats before they die. It was first discovered a couple of years ago in a single mine, and it spreads yearly. This box holds tubes of tissue samples collected from bats that have died in some of those caves. They'll be used for genetics studies to estimate the future potential impact of the syndrome on those populations.

Sketch Scope

That's a binocular dissecting microscope. There's a drawing tube sticking out of the right side that lets you easily sketch a specimen while observing it. Sometimes drawing is faster than photography when you're taking quick notes.

Flesh and Bone

The big jars have flying foxes in them. They only eat fruit and rely on vision instead of echolocation. So they have big eyes and they have almost dog-like faces. The skulls on the tray are from the same species—I'm comparing their teeth with those of insect-eating bats.

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