Researchers are currently undertaking efforts in order to understand bats better, as part of the North American Bat Monitoring Program.
The initiative, led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be conducted in 31 U.S. states, as well as in 10 Canadian provinces. It’s the first time that such far-flung research will be carried out with a view to closely monitor and investigate bat populations.
The primary driving force behind this project was an incurable fungal disease called white nose syndrome, which has been killing millions of bats, by wrecking their wing tissues and disrupting their vital hibernation patterns.
Another threat that bats face is represented by wind turbines used for producing sustainable energy: around 600,000 animals have died in 2012, after colliding with spinning blades.
Researchers wanted to keep track of these incidents, since dramatic declines in the number of these flying mammals have brought them dangerously close to being endangered.
Around 6 million bats have died in North America in the last 8 years, according to estimations, and this downward trend continues.
Also, the extensive monitoring program will give further insight into the importance of these flying mammals as part of the ecosystem, the extent of their current habitats (known as hibernacula), and the impact that climate change has had on their population.
Scientists will be employing acoustic surveys, at mobile and stationary sites, as a means to identify high frequency sounds which bats make, as they fly through the night, in search for prey.
Other tools for analysis will include counting the population of hibernating bats during winter, and keeping track of maternity colonies during summer.
The number of locations will vary depending on state, and environmental factors. For instance, bat monitoring in Idaho has been hampered lately due to wildfires.
Data will be collected and aggregate at the Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) in Colorado, of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS),
“It’s long overdue. It’s going to provide a lot of information to natural resource managers”, explained Patricia Stevens, Trust Species and Habitats Branch Chief at FORT.
Currently, there are 150 species of bats on the North American continent, and 47 of these are in the United States.
However, just a few species have actually been analyzed by scientists, because these mammals are tiny, and their nocturnal patterns make them elusive when it comes to being encountered and monitored in their natural habitat.
Advanced technology which has been introduced in recent years may help address this problem, by providing new means of studying bats. For instance, acoustic monitoring can now be easily done using a small gadget, connected to a smartphone.
Using these techniques, researchers hope to gain further knowledge regarding the bats’ current population trends. While it is known that a sharp drop in numbers has been unfolding recently, its extent remains unknown.
Such data regarding bat population is necessary because these flying mammals help keep mosquito and pest insect numbers in check.
For example, Brazilian free-tailed bats from Texas, which amount to around 1,000,000 individuals, feed on over 8 tons of bugs every night, consuming quantities equivalent to their own body weight.
In addition, some bat species, such as the Mexican long-tongued bat and the lesser long-nosed bat, are essential for pollination.
Given the importance of bats as part of the ecosystem, researchers want to raise further awareness of these wrongly stigmatized animals, and most of these efforts are being undertaken these days, in preparation of Halloween, as part of National Bat Week.
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