Scientific conferences get a bad rep. The caricature of a dry, complex and indigestible volume of pure scientific method is, thankfully, unfair. That is, based on my recent visit to the Britbats2018 Conference in Bristol. Learning from researchers about what they have been up to gives you an unparalleled insight into the current frontiers of our knowledge and what we are doing to blast great holes in the limits of our knowledge.
It was fantastic to hear about the Nature Smart Cities Project – using a new detector to report real time data in the Queen Elizabth Olympic Park gives people an unparalleled insight into bat activity. Reliant as it is on power and wifi this is very much an urban monitoring technique but hey, that’s where a lot of humans live so if you want to engage people what better way than to develop the PokemonGo of the bat world? As more and more of the world’s population will live in urban centres it is so important that we find ways to interact with the wildlife that does co-exist with us there.
There was also a fantastic focus on using technologies for ecological surveying such as thermal imaging to detect and track movements, radar and ultrasound as deterrence and increasingly complex DNA based analysis to understand the complex invisible differences between species. If you ever want an example of the power of the human ability to learn new things and apply them to novel situations then look no further than this – it is this innovation that breathes hope into conservation aims worldwide.
But if you think that this exchange is only one-way, that researchers are only ‘borrowing’ ideas and techniques where it can further their own research goals you do the scientific community a disservice. Because actually, what several presentations showed is that many highly skilled researchers can add value outside of their immediate field like a statistician bringing a mind-melting array of statistical methods to aid the analysis and modelling of ancestral bat calls. Or a bat ecology specialist realising that bats play a critical role in predating vectors of tropical diseases (in short – they eat a lot of bugs). By developing methods to understand the bugs in the bat poo you could maybe map the spread of these diseases.
The world we live in is changing – temperatures, sea levels, seasons, populations, consumption and biodiversity are all part of a series of ‘mega-trends’ that are never far from the news. The interaction between these trends is a big grey unknown a lot of the time. So the work of researchers to understand how bats interact with solar panels is really important if we are to balance the twin environmental objectives of decarbonisation and protection of natural resources. Apparently bats can get confused by the smooth surface of the panels, and mistake them for water. For a featherlight bat (just a few grams) the immoveable mass of a solar panel is a novel and probably unwelcome addition to a field. But how quickly do bats learn about these obstacles? And how do they affect the ability of the bats to forage for flying insects? These are important questions to answer if we are to manage finite land space successfully.
Finally then, to my favorite presentation of the day on organic farming. Specifically, how the transitional period between a non-organic farm and an organic farm, which can take up to three years, affects bat foraging. Her preliminary results showed that organic farms had more bat activity than non-organic farms. So far, so as expected. But the transitional farms had less bat activity than the non-organic farms. Logically this doesn’t really make sense, the optimist in me would hope that the benefits to nature start to apply pretty soon after chemicals stop being sprayed – the reverse is certainly true. But think about what might be happening in the transition window: soil nutrient levels may well be very low, pioneer species (in the UK things like nettles and fast growing grasses) will dominate, plant diversity may well reduce, insects could go through boom and bust cycles – these are not good things for stable predator populations. The structure of the habitat may well be changing too. The impact for agri-environment schemes should not be underestimated – there may be a considerable lag before positive returns can be fully accounted for. If you are assessing plot recovery or success of management measures you may well determine that something isn’t working – but the proper answer may be that it isn’t working yet. Like good research, habitat changes take time. This project is still ongoing and I wish the researcher all the best with this work.
As you can tell, I had a great day and am thoroughly motivated and inspired by the work of so many people. Keep it up 🙂