Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Dan Riskin’s Inspiration for Fiona the Fruit Bat

Author and bat expert Dan Riskin shares the extraordinary encounter he had with the bat who inspired Fiona, and the message of self-discovery she represents.

“This might sound weird, but the main message in my book is one I learned from a bat in Costa Rica.

I was a bright but aimless kid. I wasn’t big on nature. I wasn’t big on science. I hadn’t found my calling. But then in high school I read the right book at the right moment. It was by M. Brock Fenton, one of the world’s greatest bat gurus, and it was amazing. These little-known animals were so full of surprises, and there were so many hilarious adventure stories about going to far-flung Africa or the Amazon to learn about them. (And frankly, many of the details about the sex lives of those bats simply blew my high-school mind!) I was hooked. I was officially a bat-fan. 

When I started my Master’s degree, I went to Costa Rica to check out some obscure bats with suction cups on their wrists and ankles—they use them to stick to leaves! The morning after I arrived, another researcher took me across the river to a small cave he said would have bats in it. When we got there, I had to lie down and slide on my back into the cave, like you would roll under a car when you change the oil. I slid in, and the ground was wet and brown. At first I thought “mud” but I realized quickly that this was bat guano. It was all in my hair, and going down the back of my shirt! But I heard the squeaks and needed to see what was in there, so I pressed on. 

That’s when I saw her.

The bat—who is now synonymous in my mind with Fiona—was unmistakable – a short-tailed fruit bat, Carollia! I’d read all about these creatures. It was like seeing a celebrity whose poster you have on your wall at home. I was in awe. This bat looked down at me, with its mouth open, and teeth showing—not in an angry way, but almost like an open-mouthed puppy smile. It felt like the world stood still. I was in love. I loved this bat, and I loved what I’d gone through to get to this bat, and maybe most of all, I loved who I felt like I was becoming as I looked at that bat. I had changed. I had found my calling. I wanted to be a bat biologist.

The next 20 years had plenty of bat caves and plenty of far-flung tropical destinations. I’ve seen more than a hundred different species of bats now, all over the world, but that first encounter with Fiona set it all off. That one bat unlocked something inside me, and I slid out of that cave with a sense of purpose I hadn’t had before.

Short-tailed fruit bats are among the best studied bats in the world, but like all creatures, they’re also full of mystery. We know what they eat, we know how they echolocate, and how they change as they develop. I even once did a biomechanics study about how they land upside down, where I made high-speed videos of them while I measured how hard their feet hit the ceiling (very gently, it turns out!).

For this book, I’ve worked with Illustrator Rachel Qiuqi and my team at Greystone to keep the details of Fiona’s experience as scientifically accurate as possible—from her roosting posture, to the identities of the other denizens of her cave, to the way she figures out how to echolocate. Carollia bats don’t echolocate until right about the time they start flying—around three weeks of age. I have always wondered what their sensory experiences are like leading up to that point. And although I’ve taken some liberties with anthropomorphizing dialogue, I really think what Fiona experiences is true-to-life. She knows how to make noise and she hears sounds, but she doesn’t know how to use those skills together for echolocation until the day she learns to fly. 

I hope that kids (and their families) will discover how cute bats are through this book, but the real message is about learning when to stop looking for answers from other people and to listen to yourself. My passion for bats is an extension of what I learned in that Costa Rican cave – the value of doing something scary and growing as a result. Fiona finds her calling, just like I did. And it comes when she learns to listen to her own voice. That’s the lesson I want to share with the young readers of this book. 
Do you want to get the chance to win a copy of this book? For the month of November (2022) any new members joining Bat Conservation Trust will be entered in a prize draw and one lucky member will win a copy of Fiona the Fruit Bat and a copy of Two for Joy by Adam Henson.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Ensuring a future for bats - the power of Wills

Thinking about Will writing and legacies can be a sensitive subject to approach but leaving a gift in your Will makes a huge difference to our work. One of our members, Katrina, got in touch to let us know she had left a gift to Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) in her Will so we asked her a little bit more about what motivated her to do so  

  1. Firstly, thank you for leaving a gift to BCT in your will. Can you tell us what is your connection to bats? I have bats living in the roof space of my home (a converted chapel) and barn
  2. When and why did you become a BCT member?  Actually, it was September 2019 I first became a member.  As I had bats identified by a local bat enthusiast through Natural England, I wanted to learn more about them, how I can help them and how I can help others learn about these mysterious but incredible nocturnal creatures. I am also interested in moths and hedgehogs which are other nocturnal creatures.
  3. Thinking about will writing can often be a daunting idea. What prompted you to leave BCT a gift in your will? I had not yet made a will and it seemed important that I made a will so that everything would be sorted in the way I wanted it to be if anything happened to me.  As well as providing for family and friends, I wanted to ensure that my favourite charities would benefit in the future… a positive legacy to know that my estate would be spend furthering the things I had been so interested in during my life.
  4. Was this a difficult process? I went to a local solicitor; it was straightforward and the fee was fixed.  Of course, I had to think hard about who and what was going to benefit, and how much.  That was the hardest part, so it does take some application.  My will refers to a ‘letter of wishes’ so that I can keep changing who gets important family papers or handed down items, rather than putting those in the will which means it would need to be revised.  These are not items of value but important social history for my family. Learning about the  ‘letter of wishes’ from the solicitor was very helpful.
  5. What would you say to someone who is unsure about writing their will? What is there to lose?  Apart from anything else, one can set out whether one wishes to be buried or cremated.  I just feel so re-assured that should anything happen to me, my loved ones are looked after and charities that are close to my heart or have helped me over the years, will be gifted and able to continue their marvellous work.  That has to be a great legacy, for anyone.

We'd like to thank Katrina for leaving a gift in her will to BCT and for taking the time to let us know and kindly answer our questions. If you would like to know more about legacies please do check the information on this page or get in touch with Andreia: 7820 7164

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Drawing Lines in the Sand Over Nature Loss in the UK

by Jane Williamson, UK Youth for Nature

How are the Bat Conservation Trust, the youth movement UK Youth for Nature, this year’s UN Biodiversity Conference COP-15 and a 50 foot sand drawing on a beach in Scarborough linked? It’s a reasonable question, and one that I’ll try to answer here. As a member of UK Youth for Nature’s Organising Team, I’ve been working alongside the team this spring to raise awareness of the fact that #NatureCannotWait, at the start of what’s being billed a ‘biodiversity super year’. Looking back on the last, lost decade for nature [1] in the year 2022, along with countless other young people, I’m driven by the fear of being in the same position in 10 years’ time, by the hope that this time, political inertia might give way to action. 

The Covid-19 pandemic was a lens through which the role of nature in our lives was brought into focus; with life stripped back to the basics, and society in turmoil, nature’s constancy and beauty was one of the few remaining sources of joy in the never-ending cycle of lockdowns - I can’t be alone in losing count. There’s also evidence to suggest that our exploitation of, and disconnect from, the natural world was one of the contributing factors to the emergence and rapid spread of the virus. Some horseshoe bats have even been put forward as the host for a similar virus; as a zoonotic virus, originating in an animal population and ‘jumping ship’ to a human one, WWF say that this is driven by ‘humanity’s broken relationship with nature’, seen for example in deforestation for urban expansion or food production and in the wildlife trade [2]. Bats have been villainised since their possible implication in Covid-19 has been publicised, but in reality it is human exploitation of the natural world which has put bats in this position. They cannot be a scapegoat for what’s ultimately our doing; they play vital roles in global ecosystems, from regulation of insect populations to pollination. 

So, moving forward into this crucial decade for nature, we therefore need to bear in mind these two things; one, that nature is vital for human wellbeing, and two, that catastrophe results when we fail to give it the respect and protection it deserves. Enter UK Youth for Nature’s biodiversity stunt - Nature Loss: Lines In The Sand…

“For years we’ve seen nature remain one of governments’ lowest priorities in the UK. When today’s young people are older, some of the most iconic species of the British countryside could already have been lost forever. Our drawing is a loud and clear message to our governments: this year the UN biodiversity conference is a once in a decade chance to set new global nature goals. Take that chance, then act to meet those goals.” - Talia Goldman, Co-Director of UK Youth for Nature.

Bringing together four biologically significant species, slotted together to make up the shape of the UK, and captured by drone footage, the sand art commissioned by UK Youth for Nature on 23rd March on Scarborough beach was then washed away slowly but inexorably by the incoming tide. The hourglass drawings also included are the symbol for the global movement Youth for Our Planet’s campaign #NatureCannotWait, strengthening the connection between UK Youth for Nature and Youth for Our Planet.

Nature as our predecessors knew it is already a thing of the past, and our perception of true ‘wildness’ is a modern one; a future devoid of wild things is unimaginable, and yet the empty beach left behind represents how very frighteningly real this prospect is, if governments fail to act sufficiently, and quickly enough. As the drawing was being washed away, pre COP-15 meetings in Geneva were in their closing stages, followed a couple of days later by WWF’s annual Earth Hour; the overlap of these three events was deliberate, emphasising that time is running out for the natural world, but we are the ones who can turn that hourglass on its side.

As it stands, with the failure to translate the Aichi Targets set in 2010 to reality, governments now seek to seal a new global deal for biodiversity. Whilst the 30x30 Agreement aims to return 30% of land globally to nature by 2030, halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity by then [3], UK Youth for Nature is pushing for an early target of 2025, going a step further to put nature into recovery by 2030. Their asks also differ from other green groups in the exchange of the word ‘net’ for ‘absolute’ - no further absolute loss of biodiversity demands far greater ambition and commitment to nature than the prevention of further net loss by 2025.

Focussing on the UK, a considerable number of the approximately 2,300 species that Oaks are thought to support are bats. The older the woodland, the better, all the more reason for enhanced protection of the UK’s ancient woodlands, in which Oaks are a key player as flagship species. Whilst crevices in bark are important roosting sites for species like Barbastelle, others like Noctule tend to make use of woodpeckers’ holes, but whatever the species, all are dependent on the life support that healthy Oaks can give to a huge variety and quantity of insects, being a vital source of food for foraging bats. [4] A recurring theme in ecosystems, this reflects how the protection of one species could have profound, positive knock-on effects on another.

This is why UK Youth for Nature are also working with the Woodland Trust to call for the protection of irreplaceable woods, and the implementation of tougher biosecurity, due to their significance as an ecosystem, not least for bats. This includes the development of an Ash Dieback Action Plan, key in supporting bat populations reliant on ash trees as places to roost. 

The Bat Conservation Trust has played a key part in supporting UK Youth for Nature’s actions on Social Media around the time of Nature Loss: Lines In The Sand, along with other major wildlife and conservation organisations. As in nature, this reflects the power of networks and sharing resources, which has been invaluable to our campaign. Collective action, amplified by young people, is central to the fight against the twin biodiversity and climate crises, which unite us all in their scale and implications. On UK Youth for Nature’s behalf, a huge thank you to the Bat Conservation Trust for their encouragement and support of our movement!

Sources/further reading:

 [1] ‘A Lost Decade for Nature’, RSPB's%20Sixth%20National%20Report,year%20global%20targets%20for%20nature.

 [2] Nature and Pandemics - ‘Urgent Call to Protect People and Nature’, WWF

[3] Achieving 30x30 in England on Land and at Sea, Wildlife and Countryside LINK

[4] Bats and Woodland, Bat Conservation Trust




Wednesday, 26 January 2022

A week of work experience at the Bat Conservation Trust

by Amelia Lam

In the summer of 2018, I completed a week of work experience at the BCT’s London headquarters. The Bat Conservation Trust is an NGO with a network of regional groups across the country, all working to monitor and conserve bats. Here is my recollection of the experience:

While my first few minutes were spent staring up at the BCT’s top floor office, wondering if I was lost, I finished my four days of work experience at the BCT with a new set of skills and some very valuable knowledge of bats!

Map showing areas of the East Midlands surveyed before/after 2014

My first day included entering data for the National Bat Monitoring programme. This is where hundreds of volunteers go out to count the number and record the species of the bats in their local area. It was amazing to sort through the surveys filled out by people all over the country with the same passion for the UK’s bats. The data from individuals really does add up to create a greater picture of how each bat species is fairing.

The next day my presentation skills were put to the test as I was tasked with creating the map and visual statistics for data about the species, spread and roost sites of the bats in the East Midlands. It’s safe to say I had never experienced turning pure numbers into squares on a map before, but I was very happy with the result!

Throughout the week I also helped edit the Bat News and wrote a short article for the Bat Monitoring Post about bat friendly streetlights in the Netherlands, although I enjoyed practical tasks even more. An example is creating bat packs to send to members of the public, which hopefully helped lessen the workload of the incredibly hardworking National Bat Helpline team. These packs will later allow scientists to identify the species of bats in that area and in the future.

I spent my last say at the BCT increasing my knowledge about the UK’s bat species, including their calls and shapes. Not long after, I remember sharing my knowledge on a bat walk during Action For Conservation summer camp in Wales, including playing bat quizzes and watching the Greater horseshoe (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) bats swoop over our heads as they exited their roosts.


Planning in progress and looking to the future

A drawing from BatFest

Since my time at the BCT, I’ve been involved in more of the planning side of the conservation sector starting with the London Wildlife Trust’s Young People’s forum in 2019. This showed me that young people are being given a voice for change in the environmental sector. Another highlight was attending the national bat conference as part of BatFest in 2020. I really enjoyed the virtual bat walk and the drawing session. It was good to get so many people together to celebrate even if it was over zoom!

More recently I was on the Natural History Museum’s Youth advisory panel and studying biology at university. I am considering a future in field research. However, no matter where I end up, I know I’ve got a basis of practical skills from my previous experiences, the BCT was a great opportunity to get started, so thanks to all the staff that helped make it happen!