Reporter 439, 27 September 1999

Bat researchers spread their wings to preserve our flurry flying friends

They spend their evenings waiting for the signal and when it comes they are ready. If Two-pools Eddy, Fast Fergal and associates are on the move then our dynamic duo will be up all night, chasing them wherever they go. Their research takes them around the world, helping to preserve some of our planet's most secretive animals. Holy conservationists! It's the University's very own batmen.

There are nearly a thousand types of bats in the world - about one in four of all mammalian species - but many are endangered

"You rarely see an overweight bat ecologist," says the biology department's Professor John Altringham. This is hardly a surprise when you consider the average bat can cover up to 20 miles in an evening, closely pursued (usually on foot) by a breathless bat fanatic.

It hardly seems a fair contest, given that the biologists’ quarry is equipped with wings, but Professor Altringham says they usually manage to keep up - and they have a secret weapon that could have come straight from the caped crusader himself.

"We can fit a tiny radio transmitter to individual bats to enable us to track them," he says, though the technology's limited range means the researchers must still be pretty quick on their feet.

Nearly one in four of the world’s mammal species is a bat. However, over half of the sixteen species native to our shores are becoming distinctly thin on the ground. "With one or two of the rarer species we know of only a handful of breeding sites in the whole country," says Professor Altringham. "Their populations are estimated to be as low as a few hundred." The same picture is repeated around the world, with the number of many bats in severe decline.

To try to arrest the plummeting numbers, increasing efforts are being made to understand bat behaviour and ecology, including their feeding habits. Professor Altringham and Dr Dean Waters recently led a study of colonies of Daubenton's bat in Upper Wharfedale. Like all bats, Daubenton's spend much of their year, and all of their days, asleep - hence the team’s nocturnal pursuits.

The bats emerge from their roosts to feed about an hour after sunset and are extremely fussy about where they eat. Professor Altringham says it was common to see individual bats return night after night to criss-cross a stretch of the river no bigger than a swimming pool. One particular bat fitted with one of the lightweight transmitters alternated between two pools 150m apart for twelve nights in a row - earning him the nickname ‘Two-pools Eddy’.

Opening batsmen: Professor Roger Butlin (left) and Professor John Altringham are studying bats deep in the Namibian desert

The study yielded some important findings. The bats clearly preferred tree-lined sections of the river with smooth water. Ripples or rocks could possibly interfere with the complex echolocation system the bats use to locate their prey, said Professor Altringham.

Most also chose to feed within a couple of miles of their roosting sites, though ‘Fast Fergal’ was regularly tracked going as far as eight miles away for a decent meal. The National Trust and the Environment Agency, which sponsored the research, will use the results to help plan future bat-friendly environmental management of the region. The study also found peculiar bat ‘bachelor pads’ - in one case a roost of 60 bats beneath the span of a bridge without a female in sight. Preliminary results from other studies suggest this particular gentleman's club is not unique to Yorkshire males - and Professor Altringham believes this may have important implications in understanding breeding behaviour.

Basecamp: (above) The Brandberg Massif is twice as big as the UK's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and is home to some of the rarest bats in the world."

Further afield, the researchers have also been studying bat behaviour atop a giant granite outcrop in the Namibian desert. Standing twice as high as Ben Nevis the Brandberg Massif - or 'Fire Mountain' as the locals know it - has a completely unique ecosystem at its summit, but one increasingly under threat from tourism.

The boulder-strewn slopes and mountainous vegetation are an ecologist's paradise. In just one evening the researchers were able to study species from all five bat families living in southern Africa. Professor Altringham and the rest of the team are returning to the Brandberg in the spring, and will be looking for evidence of rarer species including the long-eared bat Laephotis namibensis, only three specimens of which have ever been identified.

Successfully conserving such a delicate population would surely earn these batmen the label ‘superhero’.

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