Press Release: Smartphones Enable Inclusive Bat Research

Alexander Conner

Bureau of Land Management.

Bureau of Land Management.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable and interesting evolutionary adaptations is flight. Long before humans cracked the code to heavier-than-air locomotion, however, another peculiar mammal mastered the air: bats. Bats share few characteristics with other flying organisms such as birds. Unlike birds and flying insects which rely on eyesight, bats count on echolocation to navigate and hunt. Just as unique as bat’s physical differences is its ecological niche. Bat populations target insects and agricultural pests, disperse seeds, and pollinate plants.  

Because bats serve as a keystone species in many ecosystems, scientists closely monitor bat populations as an indicator of overall ecological well being. Especially considering emerging fungal infections like White Nose Syndrome (WNS) which threaten bat populations, scientists need new, inexpensive ways to track populations to replace expensive and specialized equipment and technology.  In a recent paper, Amanda-Jean Blackburn and Shem Unger of Wingate University explore the viability of smartphone-based, non-invasive monitoring technologies to track bat populations. 

Acting as a proof of concept, the experiment assessed the viability of smartphone-based technologies to achieve three goals: identify common bat species, monitor temperature and light in man made bat boxes, and check those bat boxes for occupancy. The scientists also used the opportunity to test if bats preferred different boxes based on light exposure.

The researchers successfully used handheld recording equipment and a smartphone app to identify five different bat species and their relative abundance based on different echolocation calls. Manual analysis of the calls revealed the app accurately identified species while statistical analysis revealed that the bat populations were not dependent on environmental variables like wind speed or temperature over the testing window which went from spring to fall.

 Data loggers placed in the different bat boxes also successfully recorded temperature and light information, however manual endoscopic inspection of the bat boxes revealed that at no point during the study did bats take up residence. The researchers suspect that it may take years for bats to discover and make nests in the boxes. The lack of bats also made it impossible for the scientists to test their hypothesis about bat light preferences. 

The methods demonstrated in this paper suggest a bright future for bat monitoring. Now, citizen scientists, students, and others who could not justify the high cost of equipment and bureaucratic hurdles surrounding direct interaction with bats can contribute valuable information about an equally valuable species. With larger and more comprehensive data sets scientists are empowered to learn more about bats and create measures to protect them from diseases such as WNS, ultimately preserving the vital role they play.