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Weather data aids in the study of bats


Bats play a big role in pollination and insect control
Bats play a big role in pollination and insect control

Cheryl Santa Maria, staff writer

May 27, 2012 — A group of researchers are using weather data to gain a better understanding of bats and the factors contributing to their decline.

Evidence suggests that bats are sensitive to changes in the climate
Evidence suggests that bats are sensitive to changes in the climate

Bat populations are in decline, and for numerous reasons.

In some places, urban sprawl has reduced their natural habitat. In others, pesticides have paved the way for disease and infection.

Environmental factors are also a concern.

There's an increasing body of evidence that suggests that bats are sensitive to year-to-year changes in the weather. The jury is still out on the link between bats and climate change, but a team of experts are hoping to gain a better understanding of it by pouring over archived weather data.

"It's been a really great research tool for us," says Dr. Winifred Frick, on the phone from the University of California at Santa Cruz. "My colleague Tom Kunz at Boston University actually did some of the pioneer work on this concept, but with birds. Weather data is archived for 20 years -- and that allows us to look at how bats, and other biological entities, respond to long-term changes in weather patterns."

Bats are diverse creatures, making up approximately 20 percent of all mammal species found on earth. Through her research, Dr. Frick found that rain patterns can influence a bat's sleeping habits. Dry seasons have them waking up earlier and hunting longer, while wet seasons have them sleeping more -- providing tangible evidence that the creatures' movements are dictated by the weather.

Dr. Frick plans to use the weather archives to see if the availability of precipitation plays a role in migration patterns.

There's even talk of using the data to keep track of cave populations -- but that's still a ways off. Weather radar experts are in the process of cleaning up their data to make it more readily available for researchers.

"Getting to work with meteorologists and weather people has been great -- it's not often that we get to do inter-disciplinary work," Dr. Frick says.

From helping with plant pollination and seed distribution to keeping insects under control, bats play a large role in society -- and Dr. Frick hopes that her work will help the beleaguered species flourish in areas where it is struggling.

"I've been researching bats for twelve years and while I promote the intrinsic value of all wildlife, bats are incredibly important," she says. "The economic value of the work they do is simply staggering."


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