Sunday, 17 February 2008

Confessions of a bat surveyor

I sometimes find working with bats a little humbling. Not only is there a vast amount we don't understand about the bats here in the UK, let alone worldwide; there are many big bear-traps, waiting to catch the unwary bat surveyor. I thought I knew most of the worst ones, but today I discovered I had fallen into a trap I actually knew about, a really obvious one. Oh bum!

I think Brown Long-eared Bats (Plecotus auritus) must be my favourite bat species (hence my choice of web address). They are very attractive (by bat standards), with enormous rabbit-ears, dwarfing their bodies and a face that makes them look faintly bemused by life. Better still, they occupy a very specialised and fascinating niche: emerging late, flying slow and using their ears to listen for their prey. Not called the "whispering bat" for nothing, their echolocation is very faint, allowing them to catch those moth species which have developed rudimentary ears to help them take avoiding action when an echolocating bat is near. In short, they are nothing short of amazing.

Brown Long-eareds are generally easy to identify in Scotland: nothing else has ears anything like that size. In the South of England, things are harder as there is another long-eared bat: the Grey Long-eared Bat (Plecotus austriacus), which is extremely difficult to separate from it's brown cousin. Bat-workers there have to resort to measuring tiny parts of the bat's body to separate the two. Unfortunately, I don't have that excuse!

The trap I fell into was to identify a Brown Long-eared Bat as a Daubenton's Bat (Myotis daubentonii). How is this possible? The Daubie has tiny ears by comparison! Long-eared bats have an endearing habit of folding their ears under their wings when they go into torpor, to help them retain warmth. This leaves the tragus (the spear-like middle-part of the ear) sticking up, looking for all the world like a small ear...

In my defence, I must say that I wasn't alone, there were several (nameless) people with me on a hibernaculum survey last month, and they share in my crime! I even took a photograph of the bat in question, which, when enlarged, clearly shows the roots of the ears folded over the flanks, but it was a bit fuzzy, so I didn't look closely at it until this evening. Today we did a second survey of the hibernaculum (the National Bat Monitoring Programme requires two winter surveys, a month apart). We found a bat in a similar place, in the same attitude, yet seeming to be a different species. It seemed too much of a coincidence, so on arriving home, I checked the photographs. It's a fundamental error, but I suppose we were peering in torchlight at a bat on the roof of a mine...

Anyway, in the spirit of public humilition and restitition I hereby present my guide to not making the same mistake! The three pictures below tell the story.

Firstly, the Brown Long-eared in question. Note the wing roots folded over the flanks, the shape of the tragi (masquerading as ears) and their pale colour. If the picture looks a bit odd, it's because the camera is pointing up and zooming into a bat hanging from the roof of the mine.



Next, a Daubenton's Bat for comparison.



Finally, it's close relative and another species commonly found in our hibernacula: the Natterer's Bat (Myotis nattereri)


Now go forth and learn from my error! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Please remember that handling bats, disturbing them or their roosts, photographing them or surveying their hibernacula, all requires a licence. If you're interested in getting involved, join your local bat group. See here for a list of contacts: http://www.bats.org.uk/batgroups/batgroups_list.asp

For information on the National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP) see: http://www.bats.org.uk/nbmp

My website: http://plecotus.co.uk/

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