Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Researching the impacts of cats on bats

Hi- my name is Abbie Case, I have just finished studying for an MSc in Conservation Biology at Manchester Metropolitan University. I have always been fascinated by bats so I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to be able to research them for my Master’s thesis.

The title of my project was, “Investigating domestic cat (Felis catus) predation on British bats through the use of molecular techniques” and when telling this to people it was interesting to see the amount of people who were surprised that cats were actually predators of bats! Being honest, myself included! However, domestic cat predation on British wildlife is a serious is sue as it is estimated annually cats kill up to 100 million animals, with small mammals making up 70% of that total.

It is estimated that 250,000 bats are killed by cats every year; however since research into this subject area is scarce, this figure is believed to be a massive underestimation. However, bat carers can agree with the serious impact caused by cats, since 30% of all casualties they receive are believed to have been as a direct result of cat attack; the typical evidence usually in the form of punctures/tears to the wing membrane.

The primary aim of my research was to develop a method, which was fully optimised, to ensure maximum results, to test swab samples from injured and perished bats in order to detect if domestic cat DNA was present. This in turn could then potentially lead to the better quantification of cat predation on British bat species. Also, the research could help with establishing methods for management and control of the predation, for example as a guide for cat owners regarding what time of day to avoid letting their pet outside.

To ensure I gained maximum possible sample yield, across locations throughout the UK, I took to social media to enlist the help of bat groups and carers to ask for their assistance in swabbing the wings of any casualties they received. I created a webpage (http://thebatcatproject.weebly.com/ ) with details about the project and a form to fill in where people could register their interest and get involved. With thanks to Bat Conservation Trust and bat groups nationwide I received an overwhelming number of people who wished to participate!

To all registered volunteers, I dispatched a swabbing kit which contained: instructions on how to optimally swab bat wings, gloves to minimise contamination risk, swabs, and a prepaid envelope addressed to the University for sending back samples. These kits were posted out during March/April so they were with bat carers for the bat season.

Once the basic procedures of the method had been established, I optimised stages to ensure the process was efficient as possible.  For example: testing two different swabbing techniques to see which had a higher DNA recovery, and also testing different annealing temperatures during Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to see which gave a greater yield of target DNA.

When it came to analysing the received samples from bat carers, all samples underwent successful DNA extraction and amplification- so this showed that the method worked and was reliable!

Next, through a process called melt curve analysis it is possible to look at results and distinguish between present species- since different species have different melting temperatures of DNA fragments. The average melting temperature of domestic cat DNA was calculated, and it was therefore assumed that samples which had a temperature of equal to or greater than contained cat DNA.

The final results of my study showed samples, which could be assumed to contain cat DNA, and therefore my developed method worked! Hopefully as research into this area continues, more samples can be analysed and the impact of cat predation on British bat species can be more comprehensively understood.

Research into cats as predators of bats is still being carried out at Manchester Metropolitan University, and it is still possible to get involved! Their website http://bat-research-mmu.weebly.com/ gives information on the project and details of other bat research going on at the institution.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Sounding out the Lay of the Land- An Interview with Alison Fairbrass by Charlie Hearst

Alison Fairbrass is a PhD student at University College London (UCL) researching within a new and exciting branch of science; soundscape ecology. Although using sound to study nature is nothing new, as anyone who’s surveyed bats or listened to bird songs can attest, this field is novel in the sheer scale it operates on. Whilst acoustic ecology tends to be more species focussed, soundscape monitoring takes in the orchestration of all the different sounds (biological, geophysical and man-made) within a landscape in order to understand the environment on much broader terms. Although there has been recent interest in soundscape monitoring, there has not been much effort to apply this method to urban ecosystems. Attendees to this year’s National Bat Conference may have seen Alison present her work on developing technology for monitoring urban soundscapes; fortunately for those who didn’t we were able to catch her for a few words about her work.
What was your first introduction to bats?
After graduating I worked for an urban ecology research group in Birmingham. One of the projects they were looking at was the persistence of bats in the city; how the connectivity of the urban green spaces affected where they foraged. So I worked on that project, first of all analysing quite a large data set of bat recordings, processing that to identify what species they recorded and then spent a summer running around gaps and tree lines filled with different intensities of light to see whether light and gaps between tree lines caused by road constructions affected bat movement through the city.
 Can you tell us a bit about your work?
Biodiversity in cities is incredibly important. It provides plenty of services for populations. But it’s really difficult to know what we have. Monitoring biodiversity anywhere is tricky, but it’s particularly hard in an urban setting; the land is divided into tiny little parcels owned by different parties; there are plenty of safety issues; and the equipment gets stolen. I’m working on new technology for monitoring biodiversity in cities. The aim is to make it easier to monitor urban nature over large spaces and time periods by using acoustic recordings. So obviously I’m interested in bats as you can survey them by their echo location calls in the ultrasonic landscape. But there are other animals in the lower frequencies such as birds, invertebrates and land mammals. So I’m working out whether there’s a way you can stick a recorder out in your garden or park and use that to understand what you have there in terms of biodiversity.
What advantages does acoustic surveying have over more traditional visual ID methods?
One of the selling points is the reduced resources involved in monitoring. If you can make that initial investment of sticking up recorders in the first place, leave them for long periods and if you have the technology to process that data in an automated way, then you will make huge savings in the long term in getting what is a massive amount of information. The issue is it’s not as if people are doing that now with huge costs. No one’s doing it anyway. It’s not happening. So there’s been recognition that we need more understanding of ecological populations to conserve them, without that data we’re blind.
Another advantage is that you effectively have a historical snapshot of what a place sounded like acoustically. If you store that data in somewhere like the biological records centre, then it can be used by others down the line. There’s loads of things I’m sure I’m never going to do with the soundscape data I’m collecting now, but when it’s archived and hopefully publicly available, there’ll be tonnes of questions that other people will be interested to use it for.
So it’s a quicker and cheaper method of surveying. Is it more efficient and accurate?
There are a few studies where people have tried to compare the data from human surveyors and from automatic recordings; it’s as good, if not better. There’s an awful lot of human error that can be involved in doing a survey, what one person sees, hears and thinks is one thing, but that can vary a great deal between surveyors. So using technology could be a way of removing that subjectivity from monitoring.
Any horror stories?
Not me personally, but I have had the police call on me once in Birmingham. I was just doing a bat survey and someone saw me when looking out of their window and got suspicious. I guess it can look pretty suspect when lurking around a neighbourhood hiding non-descript black boxes in places. 
Could this work feed into how human generated sounds such as traffic affect biodiversity?
That’s one thing I’m quite interested in looking at from the data that I’m recording in London at the moment; how the presence of particular human sounds at a site relates to the biotic sounds that we record. Maybe there are certain anthropogenic sounds that can be used in complement to biotic sounds to tell us what the nature of the environment is as well. For example there are a few interesting studies where it’s been shown that birds and some insects change the way they call due to anthropogenic sounds. 
Are there ways around measuring the presence of species that aren’t typically noisy?
That’s one question I will be working on over the next year; what the noisy species can tell us about the quiet ones. The idea is that you should be able to use the noisy species and everything else in the soundscape to understand what the environment is like including the quiet things like plants and small invertebrates. So that’s exactly the kind of relationship I’ve been looking at everywhere I’ve made recordings by also surveying the local environment. Hopefully, I can try and understand the interaction between the two to find if sound can be reliably used as a measure of an environment as a whole. 
Back to developing your software, what does that entail?
A lot of programming. I had to improve my ability to manage large data sets and work with them to pull out information. Luckily I’ve had some help with computer scientists here at UCL. I guess it’s about understanding how you can characterise different types of sound; identifying and differentiating between natural and anthropogenic sounds; geophysical sounds like rain and wind; sounds between and within a biodiversity group and see how you can get to a more taxonomic group level. Trying to work out how I can do that is really what I’m tackling at the moment.
The next stage from that, and I’m sure this is what people are usually interested in, is getting species ID. I wouldn’t really do that, that’s a whole PhD in of itself, but my work can feed into existing tools such as iBat which can do pretty good European bat species identification.  What I’m aiming for is getting index measures of biodiversity in an urban environment, like a kind of summary or quick snapshot of the ecology of the habitat on a community scale. Those kinds of measures can be used over long periods of time to measure trends in biodiversity. 
Any surprises from your study?
What was interesting is that every location I surveyed in London, even the most central locations like right on Tottenham court road had bats. Even at sites where no birds were recorded for an entire week, we still got bats; they’re pretty amazing, almost like an urban adapted taxonomic group. Another was just how much anthropogenic sound there is in the ultrasonic frequency range, of course we dominate the lower ranges, but something like a breaking vehicle can go really high in pitch. So I think ultrasonics should also be considered when discussing conservation and noise pollution, as animals such as bats use those frequencies. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

2015 National Bat Conference by Charlie Hearst

A collection of enthusiasts running around, flapping their capes to the tunes of Danny Elfman going ‘nananananananana’ was one of multiple misconceptions I endured from friends and family upon informing them that there is such a thing as a Bat Conference. Yes, there’re live bats. No, there isn’t fancy dress. And no, there aren’t late night screenings of Batman (although I did meet an Adam West but I’ll get into that later). The National Bat Conference is not the Goth’s answer to comic-con, but an annual event showcasing the latest in technology and research gone into conserving and understanding this fascinating mammal group.

After a drinks reception hosted by one of the events’ sponsors we head off on a bat walk around campus at the University of Warwick led by, none other than head of the National Bat Monitoring Program, Phillip Briggs. Thanks to the University’s abundance of greenspaces and close proximity to a nature reserve, the place bristles with wildlife. Nowhere is this more evident than by the lakes close to the halls. In the daytime, the water teems with carp whilst swans, coots and moorhens lazily drift along the surface, you may even see the occasional heron fly past. Skip to nightfall and the air seethes with bats in a feeding frenzy. Our bat detectors convert their ultrasonic calls to an audible level treating our ears to a cacophony of smack, knock and fart sounds as the bats acoustically feel their surroundings.  We can see dozens of Daubenton's bats skittering dangerously close to the water surface like mini-hover crafts, chasing down swarms of insects or trawling the water with their elongated feet for larvae. Higher above, common and soprano pipistrelles bank, swoop and dive through the air like little fighter pilots as they hawk midges and mosquitoes.  Even higher, our detectors pick up the low chirps of the common noctule, our largest bat species in the UK.

The next morning, we’re in the lecture theatre anticipating the day of talks and demonstrations. Theme of the day is evolving methods for surveying bats, from the latest hardware to novel survey strategies we are treated to a range of talks from professors, students and professionals (admittedly the work  sells better than the speaker at times, but that’s scientists for you). On the gadget end we’re shown footage of bats shot in stunningly crisp detail by the latest in thermal image technology; the Selex-ES (Merlin Camera).  Currently the only HD infrared camera in the world, sensitive to temperature differences on 0.02 degrees, I think the presenter mentioned liquid nitrogen in the detector, I don’t even know what that means but I want it! At least until I realise I could buy a house for a similar price.

Some of the latest innovations are in developing software, such as a dauntingly ambitious PhD in which a program was developed to automatically ID 87 Mexican bat species from their calls. Another involves a mathematical model for estimating population density just from using bat calls. Bear in mind how many call sequences a single bat going in circles will generate and you’ll appreciate just how impressive an achievement this is. But it’s not all pimped out gear and fancy programming, the genius of some projects lay in their simplicity or resourcefulness. Take the Norfolk Bat Survey for example. For this project, anyone with an interest could rent out high quality bat detectors from monitoring centres that had been set up around Norfolk, survey a designated patch and return their recordings for analysis. Not only has this project succeeded in achieving standardised monitoring on a large-scale (786 square kilometres surveyed since it started in 2013) but has made surveying all the more accessible by tackling obstacles that could otherwise discourage newcomers such as buying equipment, finding a site and analysing recordings.

We finish the day of talks with a series of workshops to choose from. Whether you want to learn how to handle a live bat, work with a software program or make your own felt bat, the variety we’ve had over the years cater to all kinds. ‘But what kind of a person goes to these events?’ I hear you ask. Glancing around the room I can pick out the likes of academics, ecologists, bat workers, carers and enthusiasts. Admittedly, the occasional ‘I ♥ bats’ shirt pops up but nothing as drastic as clip on wings, although what we do at other events is another matter (see exhibit A). But why bother attending? Well for people such as myself, seeking the knowledge is a reward in of itself, but the talks also have a far more practical side, outlining new techniques or projects for people to get involved in. As one attendee by the name of Adam West put it (no relation to the ex-batman) ‘a few things have inspired me to go out and generate my own records, particularly the talk about where all the pips go in winter, that’s something I’ve often wondered about and hope to try out in my hometown’.

The talks mentioned is far from exhaustive. There was a broad range of fascinating talks from how LED lights affect bat-avoidance behaviour in moths to using the urban soundscape to monitor biodiversity. If you’d like to know more you can read the abstracts which will be available shortly on the BCT website, also watch this blog space as we will be publishing an interview or two from some of the speakers.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Passion of the Bats - by Rev. Caroline Hewlett

In 2006 I became Vicar of the Parish of Swaledale with Arkengarthdale, in the northern Yorkshire Dales. Not long after I arrived, I was told about one of the problems they had kept for me to sort out – as they do, when you are new.

One of the four churches, St. Andrew’s in Grinton, had a problem with bats. They flew around inside, leaving lots of droppings, which meant lots of cleaning. And they seemed to be most active in the summer, just when the church was open to welcome visitors. I did some research and got in touch with a local bat ecologist, John Drewett. I – not knowing anything about bats at that time –asked him, ‘so how do we get rid of them?’
John took a deep breath, and explained that they became a Protected Species after surveys in the 1970s and 80s indicated that their numbers in the UK were rapidly declining. He has continued to be a patient teacher!

In 2008 I started a certificate course, Christian Rural and Environmental Studies (www.cres.org.uk), which gave me the opportunity to do some more research about our bats. In my final course project, I looked at both sides of the argument about bats in churches; there are bat conservation issues and there are the problems that can be caused by bats living in buildings that are used as places of Christian worship.
As we couldn’t move our bats on from Grinton Church, the congregation and I decided to learn more about them, to celebrate their uniqueness and to turn them into a feature and a visitor attraction. This had been done successfully at a church in the Lincolnshire fens[1] and we borrowed from their work. This is a three pronged approach which allows people to co-exist with the bats in a positive way.

This approach involves:
1. Limiting the damage – covering furniture and cleaning carefully;
2. Promoting the bats – as a unique feature of the church and the local ecology;
3. Using the bats for education - we have had a ‘bat day’, aimed at children and families; we have put on talks and guided bat walks and we have some new interpretation boards about bats in the church. I have also done some work with local schools about the bats. This is an ongoing project, in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park, who have supported us with money and practical help, and we aim to continue to raise awareness about the bats and their life cycle. We have also started a monthly bat count with the local bat group in order to determine a pattern for the year.

The problems that bats cause in church buildings can be difficult to manage, and need to be handled realistically and carefully, but bats in churches can be approached in positive way; they can be used for educational purposes, for the congregation and with local schools, and they can become an attraction for visitors. Above all, they can be celebrated as a unique feature of a place and as part of God’s gift of creation.

[1] Holy Trinity Church, Tattersall

Friday, 1 May 2015

Visualisation of bat calls on your smart phone by Dr Tom August (twitter: @TomAugust85)


In an age where you can live most of your life via your smartphone it is perhaps surprising that there is little in the way of bat survey tools. Whilst there are a number of applications in the pipe line I found it frustrating that there was no cheap way to visualise sonograms in the field using my smartphone. After all, such a task is well within the computational capacity of even the low end smartphone, and would be a valuable identification and public engagement tool in the field. There are already some products on the market designed to interface a bat detector and smartphone but these come at a significant cost. No doubt it will not be long before cheap apps and appropriate connecting cables are designed and commercialised, but in the meantime I took on the task of connecting my bat detector to my phone for as low cost as possible.
Dr Tom August (twitter: @TomAugust85)

After a couple of days I was able to create a setup that cost around £15 ($22) that connects my iPhone to my BatBox Duet. This allowed me to visualise calls in real-time, record and review calls, and even share them on social media. Here’s how.

This solution has two components, first is a cable that can take the audio out from the detector to the phone, and the second an app that can be used on the smartphone for free, or at a low cost. Whilst powerful, smartphones cannot sample audio at a high rate (only up to ~48kHz), so this solution works best with frequency division and time expansion output. Using a bat box duet as an example the first step is to take the left channel (frequency division) from the audio out, this is done using a stereo to mono splitter [1]. Next, smartphones are setup to accept microphone input through their headphone jacks, but they expect this to come from an unpowered microphone, to attenuate the power that the phone tries to send to the microphone we use an attenuation cable. We can get a cable that at the same time converts our audio connector into an audio and microphone connector suitable for plugging into a smartphone [2]. Finally we need a short connector that connects these two previous cables together [3]

Here is the summary of the cables, remember, there are likely to be many suppliers of these components and some may be better or cheaper than the ones I link to.

[1] Stereo to mono: Maplin - £2.79

[2] Attenuating cable: Ebay - – £8.99

[3] 3.5mm male coupler: Amazon - £3.04

With the audio of our detector feeding into our phone all we now need is an application to view it on. While the cable will work for a variety of phones there is currently no good app that works across platforms. It is worth having a look around to see what apps are out there but at the time of writing I would suggest Spectrum view [4] for iPhones and Spectral Audio Analyzer on Android [5]. Both are free but have a premium versions for about £5 ($7.50).



I would recommend upgrading to the premium version of both apps as the cost is minimal and the additional functionality is well worth it. So there it is, in total my setup cost £25 ($37) including postage and the premium app. Check out the video for a demo of how to put together the set up and use the two apps I mention, I cover using an iPhone, iPad (both using iOS) and a Moto G (running Android).

Monday, 27 April 2015

Roz Hutchinson, the BCT's Trusts and Grants fundraiser discusses: Fundraising for BCT       

I have been fundraising for BCT for nearly five years and I can say hand on heart that this has been one of the most challenging roles that I have taken on.  Bats do tend to polarize people’s opinions.  It seems you either love them or hate them – a bit like Marmite.  But, as with most things, there is an interesting back story about why we should conserve these mesmerizing creatures that are so rarely seen but if you are lucky they are near where you live, work and play.  If they are not, you should be worried because it means that your environment is failing.  Bats are one of the UK’s Biodiversity Indicators of a healthy environment and their success or failure is an indicator of how well the UK’s environmental health is doing.  They are also legally protected, so all 17 species that are known to be  flying around the UK really should be flourishing.  However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation has meant that in the last century we saw their numbers dwindle to dangerously low levels.  So after nearly 25 years’ hard work, BCT is beginning to see conservation efforts based on effective monitoring, study and guidance having a stabilizing effect - albeit that the numbers are at a much lower level than in the early 20th century.  So we can see that concerted and effective efforts to conserve the bats’ habitats does work.

Australian Fruit Bat

Thus we have a good news story.  Remember even though bats may not be the most popular species in the UK, they are unique, they are living on the edge and they are the most effective natural insecticide we have.

I work in a specific field of fundraising with a range of funders who can be quite well known or entirely confidential.  Some need to know very little about our everyday activities understanding the strategic impact that we make and others are more interested in specific projects.  Their contributions together with our supporters’ donations - both individual and corporate - are vital to our activities to ensure that bats and people not only survive together but thrive together.

Grey long-eared bat (©Hugh Clark)

We currently have a small but growing number of organisations that support our work and we are always looking for new ways to engage organisations and their work forces; again we have a small number of volunteer fundraisers who donate their time to our cause.  We would love to hear from anyone with new ideas about how we could work with corporate organisations in your area or if you would be prepared to help us as a volunteer fundraiser – do call or email (and then put in relevant contact).  If you think you might want to get involved.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

We talked to Lizzie Barker, Director of Creature Candy and full-time ecologist, about her love for bats, wildlife and giving to charity:

Q.       Do you have a memorable bat experience?
My first encounter with a bat was pretty memorable, as Im sure it is for most people. It was a brown long-eared bat we had uncovered during some roofing works and I remember thinking how beautiful, delicate and innocent it looked. I was shaking with excitement and that feeling stayed with me for several days. Brown long-eared bats are still to this day my favourite bat and is one of the reasons why I chose this species for my first product design. 

Q.       Do you deal with bats a lot during your job as an ecologist?
As a consultant I specialise in bats but most of my survey work involves encounters with foraging bats during emergence surveys, or encounters with bat droppings during building inspections. There are very few opportunities to see bats close up in their roosts or to handle them. If we do find bats we always keep disturbance levels to a minimum and only handle bats if absolutely necessary. It’s always such a pleasure to find a new roost and I still get that excited feeling in my tummy whenever I see one, whether close up or flying in the sky. They are simply magical creatures. 

Q.       What other species do you frequently deal with? 
I have to deal with lots of other protected species in my job, including great crested newts, dormice, reptiles, water voles, otters and badgers. Most of my work is focused around bats though which is how I like it. 

Q.       What is the greatest threat to bats in the UK?
The populations of our UK bat species are unfortunately under threat now due mainly to loss of foraging and roosting habitats, largely as a result of building and development works. As a consultant ecologist, part of my job is to survey buildings, structures and trees that are due to be subjected to development or remedial works. Our role is vital to ensure bat roosts are not unknowingly destroyed and bats are not harmed in the process. We also provide guidance and support on how to best mitigate for such development works and often create many new bat roosting spaces as a result. However, it shouldn’t just be left to the consultants and developers to create new roosts. I think we can all do our bit for bats and encourage them into our gardens and roof spaces. Just some simple wildflower planting would help attract insects, and the bats (and birds) will follow. Simple!

Q.       What made you make the jump and set up Creature Candy?
On a daily basis I work side by side with British wildlife charities and often ask them for guidance and reassurance. They work tirelessly to conserve our threatened species and help raise awareness. I felt the need to give something back and so I came up with the idea of Creature Candy. My primary aim was to raise money for British wildlife charities, however I also wanted to raise awareness of our declining species and offer information to my customers about the species and the charities their donations will help support. We provide fact sheets about each of the species, charity membership forms, and there is also descriptive text on each product. It was also really important to me to try to change people perceptions of bats from dark black silhouettes with fangs and red eyes, to the beautiful charismatic and unique creatures they are. I hope our brown long-eared bat illustration has achieved this. 

Q.       Why did you choose bats, bees and moths to focus your designs around?
The challenge of changing peoples opinions of bats via an illustration and some text was my main motivation for the bat design. I also know the charity (Bat Conservation Trust) very well and admire the wonderful work they do. Supporting them was a no brainer for me. Bees and moths have a wonderful elegance to them and they are both incredibly important in our ecosystem. Getting people to understand them, understand their habitats and encourage them into their gardens imperative. They also look really beautiful as illustrations on our products. However, we are not just stopping at bats, bees and moths, we have lots more design ideas in the pipeline. Watch this space!

Q.       Why did you decide to donate 10% of sales to charity?
Creature Candy is not just about British made products with pretty designs on them. It’s also about education, inspiring people and giving something back. Our wildlife charities operate on such small budgets and without donations from individuals and businesses, both small and large, they wouldn’t be able to operate at all. It gives me the greatest pleasure handing over cheques to them at the end of the financial year. 

Q.       Apart from buying a bat themed product from Creature Candy, what more can people do to further bat conservation?
Learn and get involved. The Bat Conservation Trust website offers lots of advice on creating habitats for bats and encouraging them into our gardens. Planting even the smallest area of wildflowers or putting up just one bat box will contribute to the wider picture and help conserve British bat species. Donations to the BCT and purchasing Creature Candy bat products is also very helpful too!