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High Tech Surveillance Equipment Used to Track Bats’ Movements

July 16, 2013
Sign reading: Slow down. Respect wildlife and property

A sign that requests respect for wildlife and property. Available at RoadTrafficSigns.com.

In Georgia, officials are turning their high tech surveillance equipment towards activities that won’t compromise your civil liberties.

With the help of a team of volunteers, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section is tracking the lives and migrations of bats using a surveillance device called the Anabat.

Twice a month, the volunteers strap Anabats to their antennae and drive around at dusk, collecting the silent sounds of bats moving through the sky. The shrieks bats use for echolocation are at too high a frequency for the human ear, but the surveillance equipment can pull the bats’ conversations out of thin air, record them and convert them to audible chirps and squeaks.

The project is part of an attempt to count the number of bats in Georgia and track their migration patterns through the state — though it is much more than an activity sanctioned by Sesame Street’s resident vampire mathophile, Count von Count.

A photo of four bats roosting.

Sweetly sleeping bats. Photo by Jessicajil.

Bats, though much maligned and associated with either scary folklore or rabies, are in fact useful creatures and key members of the ecosystems they live in. They eat half their body weight in pests and insects each night, providing a free service to farmers and to the environment in general — more bats eating pests means less need for chemical pesticides that run into our rivers, streams and water tables.

Bats and pest control go hand in hand. According to Bat Conservation International, a pecan farmer in Georgia was losing 30 percent of his pecan crop to hickory shuckworms and other pests. That is, until he installed bat houses on his property — one of them housing upwards of 2000 bats. After two years, the bats had gorged on enough shuckworms that the farmer saw no further damage to his pecan crop.

A beet farmer lucky enough to have even a small colony of 150 big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) flapping around his land can, in one summer, expect them to eat enough cucumber beetles to prevent the birth of 33 million destructive larvae from decimating his next years crop.

Bats in a tree

Bats are integral part of the agricultural ecosystem. Photo by Tropenmuseum.

Useful as they are, bats are highly sensitive to changes in the environment. Small shifts are enough to decimate populations (for small mammals, bats are notoriously not profligate — lady bats can only raise one pup a year). Bats are considered canaries in the coalmine for the local ecosystem. When the bats go, it’s a sure sign that something has gone wrong.

Residents can choose to ignore the problem by, for example, replacing bats with chemical pesticides, but that’s hardly the enlightened option.

In England, conservationists have already completed the bat surveillance project currently underway in Georgia, and have published the collected sounds into sustainability maps. These highly detailed maps (collected on walks through the Lake District rather than drives) show conservationists where bats are in danger, and where they are thriving. The maps can be used to simulate how a newly planned road will affect the bat population. Will it kill a colony if placed 30 meters from a lake? What about 200 meters from the lake?

Data collected from these bat surveillance projects could make huge strides in reviving and protecting bat populations. Now if only the NSA’s use of surveillance seemed nearly as wholesome.

Category: Property, Surveillance

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