Thursday 3 June 2010

Fruit bats head west!

Helpline Officer Harriet Henley discusses how BCT’s Bat Helpline in the UK was involved in an exciting discovery in the world of Egyptian fruit bats…

As well as reassuring people who are nervous about bats, and giving members of the public and professional’s information and advice, working on the Bat Helpline also gives us a great opportunity to hear first hand people’s joy upon finding out that they share their home with these amazing creatures. In some cases we even get the privilege of being privy to some really interesting discoveries. Without a doubt, my favourite of these instances came about from an email sent to us in November last year, which ended up making a significant contribution to international fruit bat research!

It all began when I received an email from Iain, a British Citizen living in Fethiye, Turkey. He had managed to take a photo of a bat, which he had been aware of roosting in the roof of his apartment for a number of years, but that he had never before seen in the daylight. He wondered if we might be able to identify it for him.

Well, at BCT we love this kind of enquiry! The recipient of the photograph forwards it around to all staff with a caption along the lines of “prizes for the first correct identification of this bat!” and is then bombarded with replies containing peoples’ various suggestions. In this case, the responses from the BCT staff were unanimous; Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus).

I emailed Iain with the verdict and explained that although we don’t generally have “batty” contacts outside of the UK, we did know of one researcher from the Institute of Environmental Sciences at Bogazici University in Istanbul, who he may wish to contact for further information.

Now this is where things got interesting… on being contacted by Iain, our Turkish researcher contact forwarded the information to his colleagues in the Czech Republic, with whom he was studying Rousettus bats. Their response was one of extreme excitement…

“Great! It is really Rousettus! For me personally and the international team associated with the research project on the current status and history of the species in the Mediterranean and Middle East (the only resident population of fruit bats beyond limits of tropes) this is indeed big news, refining the range of the species in an essential way.”

A bit of background information is I think required at this point…

The species has a wide, but patchy distribution, ranging across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus. Up until this point in the proceedings, the westernmost record of this species in Turkey (which corresponds to the most northwest margin of the global distribution of the Egyptian fruit bat) was Antalya. Fethiye is a good 200 km west of Antalya, which means…(wait for it!)…

Iain’s record of Egyptian fruit bats roosting in Fethiye represents BY FAR the most western marginal point of distribution of the species discovered to date!! And what’s more, his record spans several years indicating that this is an established roost!

Big news in the fruit bat world, and a great discovery to come via the BCT office!

As the Bat Helpline finished playing its part in the story arrangements were being made for one of the Rousettus research team to actually visit Fethiye to try and monitor the roost and determine whether it could be a satellite roost for a much larger colony that may be roosting nearby, so far undetected.

Discoveries of international importance only come about every once in a while on the Bat Helpline, but everyday the we have the fantastic opportunity to be part of new discoveries closer to home. It may be guiding a member of the public as they rescue a bat for the first time, or converting someone into a bat-lover and opening their eyes to the wonderful world of bats, or speaking to a householder who has discovered a bat roost in their home.

I hope this tale of far away bats has brought a smile to your face, as reliving the episode has to mine.

Long live bats, mega and micro!!

Harriet Henley
Helpline Officer
The Batcave

Rousettus Facts:

• Egyptian fruit bats usually roost in caves, unlike other tree-dwelling fruit bats.
• They roost in numbers from 2 or 3 to 2,000 individuals!
• Bats belonging to the genus Rousettus are the only fruit bats that use echolocation, and theirs is the only echolocation audible to human ears.

If you need help with a bat or advice about bats and their roosts, please call the BCT Helpline on 0845 1300 228.

Photo: Egyptian fruit bat. Courtesy of Iain McCulloch