close-up photo of the board game Atiwa

Mariëlle's study became a board game

Mariëlle van Toor’s research shows how fruit-eating bats have the potential to contribute to reforestation like no other animal. Now, her study has become a board game, created by one of the biggest names in the business. She hopes that the game will help people see bats as something more than pests.

Last summer, Mariëlle van Toor, a researcher of ecology at Linnaus University got a surprising message. The German boardgame company Lookout games had written to her to say that her study about the unrivalled potential of fruit bat colonies in Africa to contribute to reforestation served as inspiration for their new strategy game.

“I looked up the company and realized that I had played many of their previous games. The creator Uwe Rosenberg is one of the most well-known board game designers globally”, Mariëlle van Toor says. She remembers how she reacted to the news:

“It was exciting to find out because this is nothing that you ever expect to happen. And I like to play games, which makes this extra fun.”

Inspired by research

The newly released strategy game “Atiwa” is inspired by a research project Mariëlle van Toor conducted together with collaborators at the Max Planck Society for Animal Behavior in Germany. Three years ago, they published a study showing the environmental benefits of straw-colored fruit bats. These bats live in large colonies, consisting of hundreds of thousands or even millions of individuals. Each night the bats leave their colonies in search for ripe fruit. On their way back home, they defecate seeds they ingested and so disperse them during these commuting flights.

“The fruit bats are not the only animal that disseminate seeds through defecation, but they do it to an extent that we have not found in any other species. Each individual flies very long distances, up to 150 kilometers each night, and releases seeds along the way,” Mariëlle explains.

straw-colored fruit bat

Straw-colored fruit bat

The straw-colored fruit bat, Eidolon helvum, is among the biggest species of bats, with a wingspan of up to 80 centimeters and weights up to 280 grams. They live in large colonies in sub-Saharan Africa and feed mainly on different kinds of fruit such as mango, fig and banana, as well as nectar. In addition to dispersing seed, they can also pollinate the flowers of flowering trees. The straw-colored fruit bats belong to a group of bats that can see, and lack the ability to navigate using echolocation.

From pests to environmental heroes

This unrivalled potential to disperse seeds over large areas is the foundation to the newly released strategy game Atiwa. The game, set in Ghana, involves the player taking the role as fruit farmer and expanding one’s farm with the help of fruit bats. Because they spread seeds over large areas, these animals, often dismissed as fruit thieves and pests, can contribute to increased harvests and economic benefits in the long term. Similar to other games in the genre, the player has to balance resources in order to succeed, maintaining a healthy number of bat-shaped tokens on the board.

The idea for the game came to Uwe Rosenberg as he read about the study in a newspaper. The interplay between humans, animals, and nature reminded him about the arrangement found in strategy games. Thus, the first seed of Atiwa was sown.

straw-colored fruit bat
Straw-colored fruit bats can have a big positive impact on the environment thanks to their ability to disperse seeds over large areas. Ondrej Prosicky/Gettyimages

Individuals and colonies

In the scientific study, Mariëlle van Toor demonstrates the potential environmental benefits of fruit bats by simulating the behavior of entire colonies. Her colleagues in Ghana collected high resolution tracking data from fruit bats equipped with GPS transmitters, as well as population data showing how the colonies fluctuate between seasons. They also measured how long it takes for a seed to pass through the intestine system of the bat, information that makes it possible to calculate how far a bat can fly before a seed leaves the body.

“I have combined these data into a model that simulates the movement of individual fruit bats, and how they defecate seeds along the way. Then we basically scaled that up to cover entire colonies. We simulated the movement of 150 000 bats to see how seeds were dispersed around the colony.”

The results show that fruit bats are unrivalled when it comes to mediating seeds. A single colony of 150 000 bats can disperse over 300 000 seeds each night, which contributes to more than 800 hectares of new forest every year.

Disseminates pioneering seeds

It is not only the number of seeds dispersed that make fruit bats such useful agents for reforestation. They also eat the right kind of fruits and drop the seeds in the right places.

During long fights between forested areas, the fruit bats frequently pass over cleared spaces. This means that they release seeds in places where it doesn’t already grow trees, unlike many other frugivores.

Furthermore, in order for new forest to start growing in cleared areas, so-called pioneer species are needed, that is, plants that can grow without the company of other vegetation.

“Many of the fruits that the bats like stems from so-called pioneering plants, such as figs or fruits from Iroko trees. When the bats disperse these seeds on clear areas, it means that they spread pioneer plants to a place without forest,” says Mariëlle van Toor.

Mariëlle van Toor
Joakim Palmqvist

Challenging the perception of bats

Today, the straw-colored fruit bats are threatened. The colonies are declining due to hunting and people cutting down their roosting trees. Mariëlle van Toor hopes that the popularity of the game will lead to more awareness of the environmental benefits of fruit bats.

Along with the game comes a booklet with information about the species and the research that inspired the game.

“What we are hoping to do with our study is to challenge the dominant perception of bats as pests and disease vectors, and instead make people realize that fruit bats fulfill an important ecological function. This game has the potential of spreading that information to people all over the world. I never had imagined that our ambition would reach this far” Mariëlle van Toor says.

More information:

Read the research article "Linking colony size with quantitative estimates of ecosystem services of African fruit bats", published i Current Biology.

The research is part of Linnaeus University Centre for Ecology and Evolution in Microbial model Systems (EEMiS)