AI and new technology allow ground-breaking study to help protect bats
The hidden habits of England's rare woodland bats are being revealed in ways never seen before thanks to ground-breaking new technology piloted by Forestry England and the Bat Conservation Trust.
This pilot succeeded in recording and identifying nearly 2 million bat calls in summer 2019, presenting a huge step forward in understanding the behaviour of important protected species and the health of woodlands and biodiversity more generally.
The pilot is the first of its kind in the UK and emerged when Forestry England and the Bat Conservation Trust decided to collaborate. They wanted to test whether a low-cost static acoustic sensor, together with cutting-edge AI-assisted sound identification tools, could help discover more about the bats living in the nation’s forests and contribute to conservation efforts. Before these innovations in technology, large scale surveys in woodland of these elusive mammals had not been viable because bat detecting equipment was costly and to get this amount of data would have taken too many people too much time.
The AudioMoth has been a game-changer, with its advanced capabilities and low cost meaning large numbers of sensors can be left in the field to record bat echolocation all night. Forestry England wildlife and ecology staff had 60 monitoring locations across 16 forests and the 400 surveys recorded 7 million potential bat calls. Data crunching and analysis took place over the winter using AI tools developed by researchers at UCL, and successfully identified 1.7 million bat calls to 8 species and 2 species groups.
Andrew Stringer, Head of Environment at Forestry England, said:
“This pilot has been extraordinary. It gave us more data than we’ve ever had to work with before and it is fantastic to see new technology being used for robust conservation science. Monitoring and evidence are the bedrock of conservation efforts, and it is tremendously exciting to look to the future and how these methods might give us crucial insight into how bat populations are performing in the long-term.”
Carol Williams, Director of Conservation of Bat Conservation Trust, said:
“In only one year the Forestry England Bat Survey identified just under 2 million individual bat calls across 16 woodlands. This exceptional amount of data represents the largest dataset of bat records ever collected by the Bat Conservation Trust. With that wealth of data comes the potential for this approach to produce trends for some of our woodland bats for the first time. As some of our rarest bats, gaining this information will be a vital step in understanding their status and securing their future. It will also be possible to use the wider bat data as an indicator of the condition of woodland. We are delighted by what our collaboration has produced at this early stage.”
Bats are an indicator species, meaning that they help us understand more about the wildlife we don’t see as much, such as the insects they feed on. When we understand their habits better it helps us understand how biodiversity and nature is faring more widely and provides an indicator of woodland health. The success of the pilot project provides ample opportunities for bodies such as Forestry England and Bat Conservation Trust to monitor the change in status and condition of woodland environments where bats thrive over time.
Notes to Editor
- Photos and audio of the bat species discovered are available.
- Forestry England manages and cares for the nation’s 1,500 woods and forests, welcoming 230 million visits per year. As England’s largest land manager, we shape landscapes and are enhancing forests for people to enjoy, wildlife to flourish and businesses to grow. In 2018/19 84% of our income was self-financed with just 16% public funding. For more information visit forestryengland.uk. Forestry England is an agency of the Forestry Commission.
- Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) are the leading NGO solely devoted to the conservation of bats and the landscapes on which they rely. We work closely with many organisations including over 100 bat groups across the UK. Bats are unique and play a vital role in our environment but during the last century bat populations suffered severe declines. We are working to secure the future of bats in our ever changing world by tackling the threats to bats, from persecution to loss of roosts and changing land use. As the authoritative voice for bat conservation we work locally, nationally, across Europe and internationally. For more info visit www.bats.org.uk
- The AudioMoth is developed by Open Acoustic Devices https://www.openacousticdevices.info/
- This study used BatDetect and BatIdentify to classify recordings of bat calls to species/species group, see https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005995