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Conference highlights: International Bat Research Conference 2019

In this article, Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams reviews her experience of the recent International Bat Research Conference 2019…

I can’t believe it’s been almost a month since I travelled to Thailand for the International Bat Research Conference. The event was a mind-blowing array of talks and workshops from bat professionals from all over the world. Over 400 bat researchers, professionals & enthusiasts gathered in Phuket to share their knowledge of the 1403 bat species now known to exist on our planet. In this article, I’d like to share with you a little of what I learned over the course of the week.

Talks
Kicking off the talks, Professor Emma Teeling from University College Dublin gave a fascinating keynote speech on Bats & Aging titled “Growing old yet staying young: could bats hold the secret of extended longevity?”. Teeling outlined a human problem: the human lifespan vs. human healthspan. She illustrated this by telling us that a human baby born now could reach live to the ripe old age of 142 (an astonishingly long lifespan!) yet still will be likely suffer a wide array of age-related health issues. The ever-expanding human lifespan is simply not being me with an ever extending healthspan. Teeling and her team at the T1K Project are asking the question: could bats hold the secret to extending human health? Bats live incredibly long lives for their body size and also apparently remain in good health throughout. By ‘mining’ their genomes, Teeling and her team hope to find out how they do it and, potentially, how it could help humans to expand their healthspans. You can read more about the T1K Project here https://insideecology.com/2018/05/09/the-bat1k-genome-sequencing-initiative/ and you can also watch Emma’s TED talk here: https://youtu.be/D5yCT5DMXO0

Professor Nancy Simmons, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, wore her signature t-shirt with 1403 on it (the number of bat species she has officially documented to date) as she told us about her latest project: the “Bats of the World” Database (learn more here: www.batnames.org). This is an incredible resource: you can click through the bat family tree, search the database and even submit a new species. This is well worth a look if you are interested in learning about the latest bat taxonomy (or brushing up on your knowledge!).

There were many excellent talks focusing on bat-human interactions and their implications for bat conservation. Professor Tigga Kingston from Texas Tech summed up the findings of these talks beautifully: “we can’t save bats if we don’t deal with people”. So much wildlife conservation research focusses on a target species and yet in many cases, without cooperation from their human neighbours, we simply cannot help these species. Understanding these interactions and applying our knowledge in the field is key to the success of so many conservation schemes. The next Berlin Bat Meeting will focus on this very subject: “The Human Perspective on Bats” will take place 23–25 March 2020 (see http://www.izw-berlin.de/berlin-bat-meeting.html).

Credit: Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams

Posters
Posters at IBRC covered a wide range of bat research topics, including: genetics, conservation & impacts on human health.

My favourite poster was presented by Xavier Puig-Monserrat and colleagues at the Natural History Museum of Granollers. Their project is a great illustration of bat ecosystem services and implications for human health.  In their study they used DNA metabarcoding techniques to analyse the diets of bats that foraged over rice paddies in southeast Asia. Their results suggest that not only that bats provide free pest control, but also that they track the mosquito swarms. You can find out more about the team’s bat monitoring program at www.batmonitoring.org.

I presented my own poster on “Thermal Imaging for Bat Research” too. You can view it here: https://kfwscicreate.lpages.co/kfw-ibrc-poster/.

Workshops
If there’s one thing that absolutely made it worth the 30-hour round trip to Thailand from the UK, the Wildlife Acoustics workshop was it. I have a PhD in Bioacoustics, and I’ve listened to researchers and professionals from all over the world teach this subject. None have explained the key concepts so clearly and succinctly as Dr Paul Howden-Leach and Dr Mona Doss of Wildlife Acoustics did in their workshop. If you ever get a chance to attend one of their workshops in future – go!

Stalls
It wouldn’t be a bat conference without the obligatory ‘bat tat’ stall. As a bat ecologist, my home is already over-stocked with stuffed bats gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. But this year, we found some great bat tat with a difference. These were provided by the incredible ladies from the Formosan Golden Bat’s Home in Taiwan. Their charity rescues, conserves and raises awareness of bats in Taiwan. They also sold some awesome yellow cuddly bats to raise funds for their cause. Some may have made it into my suitcase. The English version of their website (http://www.goldenbat.org.tw/english) is still under construction as I write, but their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/formosangoldenbat/) is well worth a ‘Like’ for updates and awesome bat images.

Another stall I loved was that of Wildlife Artist, Dao Van Hoang. Hoang is Vietnamese, and travelled to the conference to exhibit a range of stunning paintings and prints of bats from southeast Asia, including my personal favourite: the painted bat (Kerivoula picta). He kindly donated a stunning original piece for auction at the conference to raise money for bat research. Sadly, I didn’t quite have the budget to bid, but I hear it has gone to a very good home in Mexico. You can read more about Hoang’s story & see some of his beautiful work on his website: https://www.daovanhoang.com/.

Credit: Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams

Sightseeing
Of course, I couldn’t travel all that way without seeing a little of Thailand before I went home. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend the post-conference trip, but I did manage a day out on a sailing trip to see the beautiful Phang Nga bay. We sailed around stunning karst islands, saw the famous ‘James Bond’ Island and the fascinating Koh Panyee floating village. Hellishly touristy, but with only a day to spare, it just had to be done.

The next IBRC will be in Austin, Texas, USA in 2022. Austin is home to the famous Congress Avenue Bridge which is home to around 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis). See you there?

Header image: Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams.

About the Author: Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams is an ecologist and thermographer, specialising in bats and thermal imaging surveys for wildlife. Kayleigh has worked both in consulting and research, gaining a wealth of skills and experience working with bats and thermography. She now runs her own business, KFW Scientific & Creative, providing training, support and analysis services for the ecology sector. You can find out more about her work on Facebook and Twitter.

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