Want to Conserve Bats? There’s an App for That

Many smartphone applications are designed more for fun than substance (Angry Birds, anyone?), but a new app from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Bat Conservation Trust offers individuals and communities a chance to get involved in citizen science in a very real way and to help conserve bat populations in the process.

The app is called iBats, named after the Indicator Bats Program, which got its start in Transylvania in 2006. “Where else would you start a global bat monitoring program?” says ZSL senior research fellow and iBats program manager Kate Jones.

For the past five years, iBats volunteers in 16 countries have been collecting recordings of bats’ ultrasonic echo-location calls, which are used to find and locate objects. The recordings are uploaded into a central database where the calls can be identified by species by program coordinators. Each species has a “somewhat distinctive” call, says Jones, who adds that the point of the project is to “build up a kind of heart monitor for the environment using bats as an indicator of change.”

Identifying bats through their calls is not easy or foolproof, but the iBats team has been building techniques to allow computers to automatically extract and identify calls by species.

“We’re almost to the point where we have an identification algorithm for all of Europe,” says Jones. This will allow the team to fully analyze the accumulated data from the past five years and then compare it to future results. The team could have waited to start collecting data until they had algorithms in place, but then they would have lost out on half a decade of data. “If we didn’t collect data in 2006, we could never go back to 2006,” to see what bats were doing that year, she says.

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The identification tools will help the team assist in quantifying the health of local bat populations. “We haven’t been able to answer what’s happening to bat species because we haven’t had the data yet, but with this tool we’ll be able to do that,” says Jones.

Until the launch of the iBats app last month, volunteers needed to carry (or mount to their cars) three pieces of heavy equipment: an ultrasonic bat detector, a recording device and a GPS device. The app makes things much simpler. All you need now is a smartphone and an ultrasonic microphone.

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