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  • 19 April 2005
  • New device helps study of rare bats

    Rare species, such as Bechsteins bat, can be tracked down with AutoBat

    Rare species, such as Bechstein's bat, can be tracked down with AutoBat

    The nocturnal mysteries of elusive woodland bats can now be studied thanks to a device that imitates their calls.


    Developed by researchers at the University of Sussex, the AutoBat emits a synthesised version of bats'social calls to lure them to a large net, where they can be caught and fitted with tiny radio transmitters for tracking.


    The portable AutoBat is now expected to help researchers to monitor some of the country's rarest species of bats.


    Ecologist Dr David Hill, who led the project, says: "Very little is known about woodland bats. They are extremely difficult to observe in their foraging and roosting habitats, which are usually in dense woodland, and they can be very hard to capture. Our technique, which involves simulating real bat calls using an ultrasound synthesiser, ensures they can be captured safely."


    The team will now use the device to survey the population distributions of one of the country's rarest mammals, Bechstein's bat.


    Dr Hill says:  "A rough estimate has put  the British population of Bechstein's bat at just 1,500 - compared with estimates of around 1.3 million for the more common Pipistrelle. But the truth is, for Bechstein's, we just don't know how many there are."


    What they do know is that this species is associated with mature woodland, roosting in old woodpecker holes, and foraging in dense cover. Before 1998 no one knew the location of any of the bat's breeding colonies. Four were found between 1998 and 2001. Since developing the AutoBat, Dr Hill and his colleagues have discovered another nine. They have now received funding from  the Mammals Trust UK to survey woodlands of Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire and Kent.


    Dr Hill, who has been studying bats for seven years,  says: "My main field of  research is ecology and conservation of woodland mammals. For many years  I studied macaque monkeys in southern Japan. One night I happened to visit the forest with a bat detector and discovered a huge amount of bat activity. I realised their consumption of insects must have a massive influence on the forest ecosystem, which I hadn't even thought about."


    He is also intrigued by the cognitive abilities of bats.  "They're only small creatures, many smaller than a mouse. But, by emitting sounds and listening to the echoes, they are capable of understanding and navigating through complex environments. That ability fascinates me."


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