by Amelia Perry, Project Officer


British Science Week 2016 is here, and we're trying to classify 100,000 bat calls for citizen science project Bat Detective. Amelia Perry spoke with Rory Gibb, a research scientist involved with the project at University College London.


Amelia: So to start off, what first got you interested in ecology, and bats specifically?

Rory: As a kid I was always really interested in wildlife, and that followed throughout my school years with my love of science, and into university where I studied biology. In more recent years I’ve become increasingly aware of the effects of human activities on the planet’s ecosystems – it’s getting harder to ignore our impacts on the planet’s biodiversity through processes like habitat loss, land use change and climate change. Essentially, I wanted to be involved in research that would help to address some of these questions.

Why bats specifically? I’ve always been interested in sound and bioacoustics, and I’m fascinated by the ways in which creatures use sound to interact and engage with their environment, and one another. Bats are a particularly fascinating group to study in that sense. Most are nocturnal, and they’ve evolved incredibly specialised sensory systems to enable them to navigate, communicate and find prey in darkness. Most species use echolocation to find their way around — they make high-frequency vocal calls and then use the returning echoes to build up a sonic ‘picture’ of their environment. It's those echolocation calls that we're interested in for Bat Detective.


Amelia: Now let’s move onto Bat Detective. What is the idea behind the project? And how exactly does it work?

Image: Rory helping two Bat Detectives classify bat calls at the British Science Week launch party in London.

Rory: Since most bats are very small and nocturnal, they can be tricky animals to spot, let alone monitor for conservation. However, since many species are under threat from human activities, it’s really important to understand how bat populations are reacting to changes in the environment. A great way of doing this is through sound - bats are constantly leaking information about themselves into their environment in the form of sound, through their echolocation calls. The idea behind Bat Detective is that we can take advantage of this to monitor their populations.

The audio on the Bat Detective site has been collected over the last few years by thousands of volunteers around the globe. They’ve recorded bat surveys using audio devices called bat detectors, as part of the iBats (Indicator Bats) programme set up by Kate Jones at UCL in collaboration with The Bat Conservation Trust, who also founded Bat Detective. From these recordings, through identifying different bat species from their calls, we can start to estimate their population numbers.

However, a project like this generates huge amounts of data. We currently have thousands of hours of survey audio to analyse — so much data that we need to develop automatic software tools to analyse them reliably. To develop these tools we need to show our computer algorithms lots of examples of what bat calls sound like. With the help of citizen scientists on Bat Detective we’ve been able to identify thousands more calls from our survey audio, all of which improve the accuracy of our automated bat-detection software. The more examples we can show the computer, the better the tools we’re developing will be.

Amelia: How does this project relate to bat conservation?

Rory: Bats are very sensitive to human environmental impacts such as changing land-use and habitat loss, agricultural intensification, and loss of suitable roosting sites. Many bat species are in decline — about one in five species are threatened with extinction and listed on the IUCN Red List. So to understand how best to conserve them, we first need to understand how their populations are reacting to these global environmental changes. That's the fundamental idea underpinning Bat Detective, and also other volunteer-led projects like the Bat Conservation Trust’s National Bat Monitoring Programme. Through long-term population monitoring across wide geographic areas, we hope to identify species, habitats or regions in greatest need of conservation action.

Amelia: Why should people contribute to citizen science, and in particular this project?

Rory: There are a few aspects to that question. Firstly, citizen science is a great way to become more engaged with the natural world, and the ways in which people are affecting it. But also, contributions from citizen scientists really do make a difference to research, by helping to gather and analyse huge amounts of data — much more than it would be possible for scientists alone to collect.

Large-scale volunteer projects in the UK such as the National Bat Monitoring Programme, or the RSBP’s Big Garden Birdwatch, are collecting ecological data that’s really useful for telling us about how wildlife populations are doing. This is especially relevant in ecology, where it's important to have not just a snapshot of biodiversity, but longitudinal studies carried out over long periods of time. Long-term data helps us to understand how wildlife species are responding over time to environmental change, and may also help us predict how they may be affected by future pressures like climate change. Citizen science has the potential to help in answering some of these questions. And, of course, it’s fun.

Amelia: What are things people can do in their everyday lives to help bats?

Rory: There are plenty of things you can do in your garden. Bat boxes — a bit like bird boxes, but with a little letterbox-like slot at the bottom to allow bats to enter — provide a safe roosting space for bats. People can also plant mixtures of insect-friendly plants and flowers in their garden to attract insects, which will help to ensure bats have a plentiful supply of food. There's lots more information about things people can do for bats at the Bat Conservation Trust website. And if people want to get more involved in bat conservation, they can also get involved with local bat groups in their area or monitoring projects through organisations like Bat Conservation Trust.

Amelia: Excellent. Before we finish up, are there any misconceptions about bats you’d like to clear up?

Rory: The common misconception seems to be that bats are sinister and spooky – or that they all suck blood. Not only is this not the case — they are actually a fascinating and often misunderstood group of animals — but there are lots of things that bats do that are extremely beneficial to humans. Many bats provide environmental services that are useful for people, such as pollinating crops like tequila and controlling insect pests, and some people also use bat guano as fertiliser.

During British Science Week, we are aiming to complete 100,000 classifications so we need your help to go through the sonograms and pick out the different calls. Please help us to reach our target and take part in the Bat Detective citizen science project.
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