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Discovering the nightlife of bats in Malta

Pipistrelle bats are the smallest bat species of the Maltese islands.

Pipistrelle bats are the smallest bat species of the Maltese islands.

Why should we be working to protect bats? These mythical animals, popularly known as blind vampires, are dangerous, stick to your hair and basically don’t matter.

However, after a one-month internship working with bats as a volunteer intern with the Biological Conservation Research Foundation (Bicref) in Malta, I am convinced they are an extremely useful species and interesting creatures to study too.

Bats are our best allies against pests and mosquitos. So this is already a very good reason to protect them. They are really useful for agriculture but also to the urban setting where insects abound.

A bat conservation research project  by the University of Malta’s Biology Res­earch Group (CBRG-UoM) focuses on studying bats’ presence, distribution, behaviours and their requirements to survive in a fast-changing environment.

This information is necessary to spread accurate awareness and best management among local Maltese farmers and public, so as to avoid killing bats, which are among the beneficial predators of insects, and thus avoid the use of pesticides.

Anyone can help bats to flourish by in­stalling bat shelter boxes on their roof or on trees in their garden or field. This is one way of promoting organic farming in Malta since only around one per cent of the island’s agriculture is reported to be organic.

With the rising numbers and species of mosquitos it is useful to have bats that eat hundreds of mosquitos per night. So their presence in our back yards might not be such a bad thing after all.

Bats are our best allies against mosquitos

Taking part in several nocturnal fieldwork sessions around the Maltese islands to observe bats and listened to them with special equipment was intriguing and fascinating.

I learned that the popular saying ‘as blind as a bat’ is a false myth. Indeed, bats actually have very accurate vision at night which is assisted by their other very unique feature.

Bats use echolocation (or sonar) to travel and to find insects. They send out sound waves and wait for the echo to bounce off insects and other objects, such as walls, to accurately ‘see’ in pitch darkness.

It was interesting to learn that bats’ echo-location system, like modern radar systems, are susceptible to interference known as echolocation jamming, when non-target sounds interfere with target echoes. So sound pollution may be a problem if other ultrasound signals in the environment interfere with the signals bats need to clearly identify to survive. Using echolocation is a rare ability that not many animals have, which makes bats pretty unique creatures.

During our research we identified which of the seven species of bats that live in the Maltese islands we were observing, as each bat species emits its own typical signals. Handling bats is only possible through a special permit, and observing experienced scientific researcher Clare Mifsud actually doing so made me realise how careful and responsible such research work needs to be. While handling a bat to study its size, gender and condition, one has to make it feel safe, otherwise the bat would be totally shocked and would curl up on itself.

The last prejudice I had about bats and that totally changed thanks to this internship was that they are not ugly animals at all. Lots of species of bats are actually really fluffy, tiny and cute too!

During the internship I realised that the scientists coordinating and undertaking this research are discovering the wonders of science and nature to increase our knowledge of these nocturnal flying mammals. It is only through many hours of field and laboratory research work that the unknown is unravelled by the efforts of these dedicated and determined researchers working at the University’s Conservation Biology Research Group.

The internship showed me that real conservation science calls for great attention to the way research is undertaken. Disturbance has to be kept to a minimum and time is spent planning activities for them to be so.

One needs to applaud the work being done by these researchers and their contribution to the much needed knowledge for conservation. Bicref and the CBRG-UoM have collaborated successfully in unravelling some of the many secrets of nature these beautiful islands still hold and encourage other young scientists from abroad to share in this exciting work.

Through this internship I have discovered various awesome facts about bats, which have convinced me of the importance of their local conservation needs. I have discovered what wildlife conservation is all about and this experience has erased all the doubts I had on my choice of studies in the future while inspiring me to work even harder for nature.

I have also discovered many stunning sights around the Maltese islands, and every fieldwork session provided me breathtaking sunsets before entering the nightlife of bats.

Celine Champagne is an environmental engineering student in Belgium whose study programme gave her the opportunity to undertake an internship with Bicref, a Maltese non-profit organisation. Bicref volunteers take part in various local research and awareness campaigns as well get involved in assisting in ongoing research projects. To contact Bicref e-mail bicref@gmail.com.

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