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The secret life of microbats

WINGING IT: Researcher Anna McConville learns a lot from the little creatures of the night.

Hunter zoologist and PhD student Anna McConville tells us about her work on microbats.

I GREW up in Lake Macquarie and while I regularly saw flying foxes feeding in our fig tree and raiding the neighbours’ mulberry tree, I was unaware of the existence of microbats.

I am studying them with financial support from the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment (Newcastle University), Donaldson Conservation Trust and the Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority.

I find science and ecology exciting as every day is an adventure.

What is the difference between microbats and flying foxes (fruit bats)?

Flying foxes are large bats with a wingspan of up to one metre. They have large eyes for navigating at night and they feed mostly on fruit and nectar.

They form large communal roosts. Due to habitat loss, flying-fox camps often end up in parks in urban areas. This, along with their love for backyard and commercial fruit trees, often brings them into conflict with humans.

Microbats are the least-well-known of our bats, but the most diverse and widespread group in Australia. Microbats are small with a wingspan of up to 20centimetres; they have small eyes and feed predominantly on insects.

Microbats do not use their eyes for navigation at night like flying foxes, they use echolocation, bouncing sounds off surrounding objects. Microbats prefer to hide in caves or tree hollows.

How did you become interested in bats?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in environmental science, I joined a local ecological consulting firm.

A major component of this position was undertaking flora and fauna surveys for environmental impact assessments. As part of these surveys we would trap microbats. I was intrigued by these tiny, warm, strange-looking creatures.

Microbats have evolved a range of different hunting strategies and body features to adapt to different habitats and this makes them very interesting for a scientist.

How many species of bats are there in Australia?

There are thought to be about 77 species of bat in Australia, 60 of which are microbats. In the Hunter and Central Coast we have two species of flying fox and 24 species of microbat.

What is so special about the bat you study and what have you discovered so far?

My research is focused on one species of microbat, the East Coast Freetail Bat (Mormopterus norfolkensis), which is listed as vulnerable.

However, we know little about the ecology of this species, which makes it difficult to determine its conservation status or develop strategies to ensure its survival.

The East Coast Freetail Bat is not an easy species to study; it is small, it flies high and fast, it roosts inside tree hollows and it is rarely captured in traps.

I wanted to attach tiny radio transmitters so I could follow them back to their roosts. Despite spending an entire spring-summer setting and checking traps, I caught only three individuals.

Thankfully, the bat gods smiled on me the next year and surprisingly I discovered the mangroves of the Hunter estuary were supporting large numbers of East Coast Freetail Bats. Most importantly, females were coming to the mangroves to give birth and raise their young. An amazing discovery so close to home!

Besides adding to biodiversity, do bats perform important environmental functions?

Yes! Flying foxes regularly travel more than 20kilometres a night in search of food.
Being highly mobile, flying foxes have a critical role in pollination and seed dispersal in Australia.
Microbats are insectivores and play an important role in keeping insect populations in check.

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Megabats and Microbats: The secret life of microbats
The secret life of microbats
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Megabats and Microbats
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