Technology revealing biodiversity in the night sky

On a summer evening, step out onto your porch or sit by a lake and stare upward. You will probably notice little bats fluttering about in the night sky. But, how many species are there and what are they doing?

When I tell folks that I study bats, many recount fond memories of seeing a number of bats in their backyards foraging for insects on summer evenings. These often-misunderstood animals are extremely beneficial to forests and agricultural systems in North America, as they consume large quantities of insect pests. A colony of big brown bats can consume about 600,000 cucumber beetles, 194,000 June beetles, 158,000 leafhoppers, and 335,000 stinkbugs per year! 1 Today, many backyard bat watchers have noticed a decrease in the number of their bat visitors. Indeed, a number of North American bat species are facing severe declines due to an invasive exotic fungal species that causes White-nose Syndrome.2 Now more than ever, monitoring of bat populations is needed by wildlife biologists and the public.

During the UConn BioBlitz, we will survey bats using acoustic monitoring devices. This technology has been used by wildlife biologists for decades to record and analyze bat echolocation calls, which can tell us what species are present, their activity patterns within a particular habitat, and characteristics of their foraging behavior.

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Here, the spectrogram images produced by an acoustic monitoring system depict the frequency of bat calls in real time. This signal is unique to the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), one of the most common bat species found in Connecticut. This particular individual was recorded foraging along Horsebarn Hill Road on the UConn Storrs campus. Indeed, the BioBlitz bat surveys will allow us to determine the presence of other Connecticut species, providing important baseline data of bats in general on the UConn campus as well as of particular bats that are severely affected by White-nose Syndrome.

Today, bat acoustic monitoring technology has advanced so much that virtually anyone can monitor bats in their own backyard! The specific monitoring system that will be used during the BioBlitz will let us record, view, and listen to bat echolocation calls in real time as well as automatically identify calls to species in the field. This monitoring system is not only very powerful for research purposes, but is also a fantastic educational tool. During the UConn BioBlitz, we will hold a workshop demonstrating how educators can incorporate this user-friendly technology into classroom activities to introduce students to the fascinating world of bats.

 

1 Kunz, T.H., Braun de Torrez, E., Bauer, D., Lobova, T. & Fleming, T.H. (2011) Ecosystem services provided by bats. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1223, 1–38.

2 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2014) The devastating disease of hibernating bats in North America. Available at: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/sites/default/files/resource/white-nose_fact_sheet_6-2014_1.pdf.