What happens at a bat conference…

Doesn’t stay at a bat conference, because I’ve written a post about it!

600 Bat researchers next to a pool. Image: @AusBats, Twitter.
600 Bat researchers next to a pool. Image: @AusBats, Twitter.

I have just returned from Costa Rica where I attended the 16th International Bat Research Conference (IBRC). 639 bat scientists from 55 countries descended on San Jose for this four-day event, which, for a bat nerd like me, was a wonderful experience. To make it even better the mascot for the conference was the Honduran white bat: Stuart Parsons noted over breakfast that they were the “best bats ever”, and I’m compelled to agree with him.

Slide: Kimberly Williams-Guillen
Slide from Kimberly Williams-Guillen’s presentation

Prior to the conference I’d had a chance to travel for a couple of weeks to see the country, and had the privilege of being shown around Tirimbina Biological Reserve by Eugenia Cordero-Schmidt and the Bat Jungle in Monteverde by Vino De Backer. Both are fantastic education and research facilities which play a really important role in bat conservation. Between issues associated with vampire bat attacks on livestock, bats eating farmers’ fruits, living in people’s roofs, paranoia about zoonotic diseases, and the mysterious Chupacabra (a bat-like boogeyman) bats get a bit of a bad rap so it’s really important that there are dedicated people educating the public about all the good that they do!

Slide: Gary McCracken
Gary McCracken in his plenary presentation

For those of you unsure of what this good may be, bear in mind that bats play a huge role in the pollination of tropical plants, and in temperate environments regulate insect pests that feed on our crops, or us. In his plenary, Gary McCracken discussed how bats provide $93/ha of value to cotton growers in Texas in this way: the pests may be developing resistance to genetically modified Bt strains of cotton, but they can’t develop resistance to the bats!

A big part of the conference was dedicated to understanding threats and ways they can be managed. White-nose syndrome of course was high on this agenda, and some of the mortality figures being mentioned were, frankly, terrifying. However, it was heartening to see that the issue had been recognised quickly and work had commenced straight away to try and understand the factors that influence the fungus’ transmission and spread, the species that were particularly vulnerable, and whether there was any means of control. Jury’s still out on that one, but I remain hopeful!

Slide: Erin Baerwald
Erin Baerwald on turbine-related bat fatalities

Wind farms were the other major issue, and they’re having a particularly big impact in North America on migratory species already being hammered by white-nose. Bats either directly collide with the turbines, or their lungs to collapse due to the low pressure surrounding the blades. Erin Baerwald showed that between 400,000 and 800,000 bats are being killed each year by turbines in the US alone: a number which is increasing exponentially as more wind farms are established. But there is hope on this front: Michael Schirmacher showed that small changes to turbine cut-in speeds can make a difference to mortality. Martina Nagy presented awesome work involving an algorithm to calculate mortality based on wind speeds and bat activity: once a threshold level is passed the turbine turns off, but this happens infrequently enough that there’s only a 0.55% loss in revenue from energy generation, and a 1:6 reduction in bat fatalities.

Other threats discussed included degradation of water bodies and increased contamination – and Samantha Naidoo gave a great presentation on the sub-lethal effects of waste water on bat fitness. There were also talks on climate change, which is will cause range shifts (Hugo Rebelo), impact on the timing of reproduction and possibly sex ratios of young (D. Scott Reynolds), and through extreme climatic events such as drought, directly impact on survival (Brad Law). Of course, all of this is acting synergistically with the effects of habitat fragmentation and land use intensification.

RELCOM's Roger Mendellin on delisting a species.
RELCOM Mexico’s Roger Mendellin on delisting a species. If we could do more of this it’d be great!

Amongst the gloom of the threats, there was also some very positive stuff being talked about, like people coming together. There were presentations on a number of regional bat associations and societies that had organised themselves in the interests of coordinating research, collecting data, and boosting public awareness.  There was Rachael Cooper-Bohannon, who has just helped launched “Bats without Borders” in southern Africa, conference organiser Bernal Rodriguez-Herrera on the new RELCOM Latin American alliance, and Tammy Mildenstein on work being done throughout southeast Asia. Our very own Kyle Armstrong also talked about the Australasian Bat Society, though it was unfortunately at the same time as my talk so I missed it. Both the UK and US now have national bat monitoring programs, presented on by Kate Barlow and Susan Loeb respectively. Time for Australia to step up its game I say!

Slide: Kirsten Ubernickel
Slide from Kirsten Ubernickel’s presentation

Then, there was the stuff that was just cool, because of its ingenuity, admirability, or downright randomness. Nathan Fuller’s presentation on the development of an automated radio telemetry system involving a cheap hobby styrofoam aeroplane had MANY interested, understandably, and Teague O’Mara presented a new means for attaching radiotrackers with known detachment times: collars made of shoelace and degradable sutures.

Slide: Joe Chun-Chia Huang
Slide from Joe Chun-Chia Huang’s presentation

Automated radiotracking may have come in handy for Antton Alberdi, who climbed kilometres up and down the Pyrenees and chased bats through scree deposits to find where they were roosting. Then, Joe Chun-Chia Huang asked the question: ‘people are willing to pay $500/kg for civet coffee, can we market bat coffee the same way?’, and presented some costings to show that it’s do-able. I’d drink that! All kinds of slow-motion infra-red videos were shown throughout the conference, and were usually associated with projects on bat behaviour. I’d have to say Klemen Koselj’s study of reactions to the calls of conspecifics, involving bats and Frisbees in a square flight enclosure, took the cake on that front.

IBRC 2013 banquet
IBRC 2013 banquet

Then, at the end of it all we got to party, Costa Rican style. This meant first a bit of cheesy 90s pop over dinner (did someone say Rick Astley and Roxette? Hells yes) followed by three dudes in suits belting out some salsa, complete with synchronised dance moves. Excellent. I’ll tell you one thing: bat people like to boogie (though those from Latin America really did put the rest of us and our moves to shame).

Some final things: here’s a link to a newspaper article which provides comprehensive cover of the conference and includes interviews with some of the key players: http://www.ticotimes.net/More-news/News-Briefs/Costa-Rica-hosts-largest-ever-bat-conference_Sunday-August-18-2013

Also, if you live in Melbourne and are interested in seeing some bats first-hand, bat box programs are run at Wilson Reserve in Ivanhoe and the Organ Pipes National Park in Keilor North. Members of the public are most welcome to join us, so email me for further details.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice post! I only wonder what all you people where doing around that pool? Waiting for the Chupacabra to surface? Or is it just how you guys roost?

    1. Hahaha – glad you liked it Jan! They claim it was the best outside place where they could fit us all in a photo, but I think this was really about having the opportunity to push the poor volunteers and more senior attendees into the pool (sadly, not captured in this photo)

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