Holy Batphone! App identifies bats by sound

June 24, 2011 7:07:22 PM PDT
Except for Antarctica, bats live on every continent of the world.

Yet, despite their nearly universal presence, researchers remain in the dark about many aspects of their biology.

To fix that, a team of British bat researchers have developed the ultimate batphone: iBats.

It's an iPhone and Android app that can be used to identify and geolocate bats.

All the user has to do is point his or her phone into the night sky and record the sounds of the bats flying above.

The phone picks up the animals' echolocation pulses -- ultrasonic sounds bats use to locate prey -- and uploads them to a central database.

The app will save effort and time for thousands of volunteers who currently lug around at least three pieces of equipment to do this job.

"Bats are like a heart monitor for wildlife," said Kate Jones, the iBats project manager at the Zoological Society of London. "Their presence can tell us a lot about the health of the environment because they have an important role in terms of eating insects and acting as pollinators for many different plant species."

The developers are now looking for money to see if they can integrate an ultrasonic microphone into smartphones that will enable everybody with a phone to use the app.

Currently, a special microphone attachment is required to record the bats.

The importance of such an app for understanding bat biology and behavior, especially if made available to the general public, can't be underestimated, said David Waldien, vice president of operations and international programs at Bat Conservation International, a science-based bat organization.

Bat Conservation International, which is based in Austin, Texas, was not involved in the development.

Waldien said sounds emitted during echolocation are useful for identifying species, and such information will enable scientists to better understand the bats' seasonal migration patterns.

"Anything that will allow the general public to actively engage" with the bats living near and around them will help to advance conservation of these flying mammals, said Susan Kwasniak, spokeswoman for Bat Conservation International -- especially in light of white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease killing bats in the eastern part of the United States, which is moving west.

Other organizations involved in the development of the app include the UK's Bat Conservation Trust, the Darwin Initiative, the Leverhulme Trust, MSM Software and Atomic Powered, an app developer.

Rachael Long, a bat specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension, said that in her own study area of Yolo County, researchers don't know all the species of bat present nor how many bats there are. An app like this could really go far in helping her and her colleagues answer those basic questions.

And she, like other researchers, would like to get that information before something like the white-nose bat syndrome hits.

"It's coming," said Long. "Like a tsunami on a quiet beach."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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