I'm a bat biologist

Bats hanging from rock

2 November 2018 by Alice Hughes

Contrary to popular belief, bats are friendly creatures that play an important role in many environments around the world.

Conservation biologist Alice Hughes, who is a consultant on the NERC Understanding Monsoon & Biodiversity Relevant to Landscapes & Livelihoods in Asia (UMBRELLA) project, gives an insight into her work and why bats are so important.

Bat facts

It's common knowledge that bats live in caves. Often viewed as dead spaces, caves are in fact thriving, self-contained ecosystems as rich in life as anywhere on the planet. Most of the species that live there have a single energy source - bat poo. Bats nest deep inside the cave and their droppings will pile up several feet high and several feet wide. Although very few animals feed directly on bat poo, bacteria found in the cave can break down the droppings into vital food and nutrients.

Bats are amazing creatures. They have the longest pregnancies and biggest babies for their body size of any mammal - 25% of their mother's weight at birth. They can live up to 40 years in the wild, which is 10 times longer than similarly-sized mammals. They also appear to have beaten the ageing process, with elderly bats looking almost identical to their teenage relatives. Bats have also evolved several important adaptations. As well as impressive aerodynamics, they can navigate in the dark by making calls as they fly and listening to the returning echoes to build a sonic map of their surroundings.

Friends to farmers and conservationists, bats play a key role in maintaining local ecosystems and reforesting degraded areas. Many species of bat eat billions of insects, including some of the most damaging agricultural pests. Others pollinate millions of pounds worth of crops, ensuring the production of fruits that support local economies. But not all bats come in the same shapes and sizes. The smallest could sit comfortably on your fingertip, while some species boast wingspans of up to 1·8 metres.

How do you study them?

One of our group's major projects is mapping out limestone hills - home to countless communities of bats - across Southeast Asia, to understand areas of regional biodiversity. We are developing tools to help us better monitor these systems, such as a 'bat cave vulnerability index'. This will help us to develop a standardised way of prioritising caves for protection - without bats as a source of energy, entire cave ecosystems would go extinct.

My team are developing new ways to keep track of species inside and outside of caves. We are using new technology to automatically process bat calls, which are like acoustic fingerprints. By feeding recordings of different bat calls into a special computer programme, we can start to find out what species are present in a specific area and how abundant they are. Soon we will use this method to survey bat activity across the whole of China's Yunnan province, tracking migration patterns as well as fluctuations in diversity and total population.

For researchers like me, collecting data means a lot of wading through mud, scrambling up cliff faces and exploring the depths of barely-known landscapes. I have had bats climb up my chest and take off from the top of my head; even hanging from my eyebrows. I've dived into underground caves to rescue equipment and battled landslides. I even had to take refuge from monsoon rains in a cave which was also inhabited by a corpse from the Vietnam War. Through my work, I hike, motorbike, sail and swim. But what makes me proudest is seeing my students learn and excel. They are all on the road to becoming future conservation leaders.

The UMBRELLA project - external link is jointly funded with the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) under the UK-China Biosphere Evolution, Transition & Resilience (BETR) programme. UK Research & Innovation has more than £275 million in joint research grants with China, across a range of disciplines, facilitated through a dedicated China office.