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Bat species threatened by increase in urban construction

Local conservation biology group continues to monitor and safeguard creatures during roosting season

Bats are important natural pest repellents and their conservation is vital to maintaining biodiversity. Photos: Claude Busuttil/BICREF

Bats are important natural pest repellents and their conservation is vital to maintaining biodiversity. Photos: Claude Busuttil/BICREF

From vampires in disguise to alter egos of rich vigilantes terrorising criminal underworlds, bats get a bad reputation in popular culture. A step up from sentient Halloween decorations, they’ve often been associated with horror and evil doings, but these small and peculiar creatures are a far cry from the monstrous reputation they’ve acquired.

Despite their small size, bats are a fascinating curiosity. The only known flying mammals, their wing physiology resembles that of a human arm and hand. Malta is home to seven bat species that inhabit several parts of the islands, with thriving communities found all over Malta, Gozo and Comino.

Common species, such as the pipistrelle bats, can even be found in large numbers in urban areas. In summer these numbers tend to swell when they form maternity roosts as the weather gets hotter, to coincide with the abundant growth in numbers of their main food source – insects. Other species, such as the Lesser Horseshoe Bat and the Maghrebian Bat, are less common in urban spaces and tend to aggregate around the more lush, wooded areas of the Islands.

Since 1998 the Conservation Biology Research Group (BICREF) at the University of Malta has been researching and investigating Maltese bat distribution throughout their chosen habitats and identifying environmental factors which affect the presence of bats in the area.

Bats roosting in urban home spaces.Bats roosting in urban home spaces.

This is all in the name of taking concrete action towards the conservation and preservation of bat populations. The work undertaken, which serves to make informed conservation management plans, has been important for the long-term health and management of the bats and serves as a reference point, informing policy as well as local authorities for improved conservation action.

“Being able to accurately identify species and populations acoustically is not a simple task,” said Adriana Vella, founder of Bicref and senior lecturer in the Department of Biology. “Special research work allowed improved methods to be achieved in this important monitoring method.”

Under the European Union’s Habitats Directive, all species of Europeans bats enjoy protection, meaning it is illegal to kill or disturb the resting place of the animals. Despite this, bats suffer many threats to their well-being, partly stemming from encroachment on their chosen habitats and partly from misinformation on the threats which the animals may pose.

Bats in urban spaces often roost inside the crevices of old buildings. Demolition and restoration work pose a great threat to the creatures as often they are sealed alive inside their roosts.

“Common pipistrelle bats have adapted to urbanised areas by using buildings as their resting places and also by taking advantage of aggregations of insects around street lights,” Dr Vella said.

“They face severe threats due to the demolishing of old buildings and their conversion into modern flat blocks. These activities both kill the bats directly and fail to allow new bats to inhabit the new buildings, thereby reducing the space available to bats in urban areas.”

Demolition work poses a great threat to the creatures as often they are sealed alive inside their roosts

While it is possible to report such incidents to the Environment and Resource Authority, further research and monitoring is required in order to safeguard bat roosts in jeopardy, Vella notes.

Other species of bat, which are not well adapted to urbanised habitats, depend on green areas and agricultural land as their habitat as well as their feeding area.

“We have seen instances of these bats being killed deliberately by some hunters; they’re an easy target practice during sunsets,” Vella said.

“They’re also mischaracterised as dangerous or evil. They are killed when found roosting in caves or in human habitations.”

Insecticides also pose a threat to bat communities, as these reduce insect abundance in agricultural lands, thus reducing the available feeding areas.

“We want to fight this by tackling the knowledge gap about bats and meet their ecological requirements better,” she added.

“We should acknowledge that these mammals play a crucial role as pest control agents. They are capable of capturing thousands of mosquitoes every night.”

Now going on 20 years since its inception, Bicref has played a vital role in ongoing conservation efforts, not just that of bats, but of various other marine and terrestrial biodiversity. The eNGO manages ongoing ecological and conservation research through their green volunteers and organises awareness campaigns to shed light on the ecological importance of diverse species, such as the bats.

This year, Bicref’s internship programme highlighted the struggles that bats face to survive and thrive in the Maltese Islands. The programme, which allows foreign volunteers to learn about Maltese biodiversity and natural heritage, focused its research on the monitoring work of Maltese bat communities and highlighted that the needs of the bats could be better met. Kinga Czutor and Reka Rehak, two volunteers from Hungary, reported on their work with the bat monitoring team during their internship.

“They really are intelligent mammals that serve a purpose,” they said.

“Conservation work is not easy… Long hours of fieldwork followed by further hours of data analysis go into studying the needs of just one species. Conservation scientists do it not just to improve on essential information but to give an informed perspective on which authorities can make decisions.”

A little goes a long way in the active protection of bat species, but attention and awareness is vital in recognising instances when these creatures may be at risk. Despite being legally protected, they face challenges in the increasing rate of urban development.

“Development projects like road works and restoration projects, have rarely included bat survival in environmental impact assessments due to the lack of knowledge of their requirements, but our ongoing research is very much reducing that gap in awareness,” Dr Vella said.

“One hopes that in the future, bats will not be overlooked and safeguarded effectively through expertise available.”

There are also many practical steps that can be taken by the public to further the protection of bats. Vella recommends reducing extra lights in residential areas – particularly within rural settings – and to check for bat roosts in buildings before proceeding with construction work. Bicref also provides opportunities for volunteers to participate directly in monitoring work with the NGO itself.

Bicref is always open to recruiting new members in its ongoing mission to facilitate the survival of bats, as well as other species at risk. For more information on internships and voluntary conservation work, contact bicref@gmail.com.

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