By Carol Shaughnessy
Florida Keys News Bureau

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Its body is just 2.5 inches long, it’s at least 90 miles away from home and its skunk-like aroma prompted researchers to dub it “Stinky Phil.” But the unprepossessing Cuban fig-eating bat (Phyllops falcatus) that has taken up residence in the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden has made history as the first of its species ever sighted in the continental United States.

The bat was discovered by students from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences who were surveying for moths in the botanical garden, and was identified by Dr. Ted Fleming of the University of Miami. Cynthia Marks, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Bat Center, captured it, recorded its presence and confirmed its identity before returning it to the garden.

“Stinky Phil” is a resident of the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden.“Stinky Phil” is a resident of the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden.

The tropical forest and botanical garden, the only frost-free tropical moist forest garden in the continental United States, offers a particularly rich environment for fauna including bats. The 7.5-acre tract contains more than 170 species of trees and plants, including more than 30 endangered species, and the dense foliage that provides the protected roosts bats prefer.

Because the lower Florida Keys are so close to the Caribbean islands and only 90 miles from Cuba, Marks said, rare specimens of Neotropical bats occasionally show up in Key West and adjoining Stock Island.

Marks and other researchers believe “Stinky Phil” is a lone representative of his species who lost his way — or was blown over from Cuba during hurricanes that churned the Caribbean but bypassed the Florida Keys in the summer of 2004.

The bat’s presence in Key West has prompted Carolann Sharkey, president of the Key West Botanical Garden Society that manages the garden, to begin creating a “Stinky Phil” Bat Center and exhibit near the area where the creature is regularly sighted. Slated to open in the summer of 2005, the center is to include information on Cuban fig-eating bats and other bat species, as well as a telescope that visitors can use to scan the foliage for Phil.