Namibian bats under the spotlight
A bat study supported by the Nedbank Go Green Fund (GGF) in the remote
Namib Desert is helping scientists attain a greater understanding of a little
understood mammalian masterpiece and the risks it faces.
Bats have taken flight in popular culture for centuries, painting an often
unflattering and negative portrait, clouding the richly diverse roles and
adaptations of bats in their natural environs.
Bat biologist and master’s student Angela Curtis, who is heading the Namib
Desert Bat Project at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in southern
Namibia, believes that more should be done, not only to improve knowledge
of the species, but to highlight the bats’ unique nature and facets.
“Most people know very little about bats and have a very negative perception
of them, from growing up with various myths and legends,” she said.
When she chanced upon the opportunity to study bats, she “discovered what
amazing and fascinating creatures they are, and that we know so little about
them. There is a whole world out there that most of us are oblivious to.”
The Nedbank GGF, recognising the importance of bat research, extended
funding to the bat project last year, intent to support local research, which is
helping answer global questions about the creatures of the night.
Although twenty percent of all mammal species are bats, and their ecological
services crucial, “their conservation is often overlooked because they are
nocturnal and difficult to study,” Curtis explained.
Part of the research funded by the GGF, on the impact of introducing artificial
light on the activity of bats there, could have “far reaching implications for
conservation”, she said.
Most people only think bats as being one generic species.
Yet there are more than 120 species in Southern Africa alone, with new
species being added to the list frequently, Curtis said.
In Namibia little is known about local species, despite the fact that the Namib
Desert, and other parts of the country, are “surprisingly rich” in bat species.
Ten species of bats are known to occur in the Namib, but as many as 24
species could potentially roam the area.
Bats are mammals of the order Chiroptera, and with their forelimbs adapted
as wings, are the only mammals naturally capable of true and sustained flight.
Scientists have discovered that bats are more manoeuvrable than birds,
They are superb caretakers of their young, as most are slow breeders,
producing only one offspring per year.
In Namibia, bats have acquired a range of remarkable adaptations to the
difficult environment, including dropping their body temperature by more than
10 degrees Celsius to slow down metabolic rates in order to conserve water
The Robert’s flat-headed bat, which Curtis studies, has been shown to survive
on water obtained from insects in its diet alone, when necessary.
Some bats live as long as 41 years, an unusual feat for such small animals,
which has led to research on what factors are involved and “whether these
can be applied to extend human longevity,” Curtis explained.
Still, more research is urgently needed.
MIND THE GAP
GGF’S funding has allowed Curtis to purchase two ultrasonic bat recorders
and specialised bat echolocation call analysis software, vital to her bat
She said the funding “increased my ability to carry out the work exponentially.
I would not have been able to complete the project without the funding.”
Her research could potentially unveil important applications for bat
conservation in the Namib.
Bats have evolved many adaptations, allowing them to fill diverse ecological
“They have significant economic value over and above their fascinating
biodiversity and life histories,” Curtis pointed out.
Most bat species are insectivorous and have been shown to play a major role
in the control of insect crop and grazing pests.
Other ecosystem services provided by bats are seed dispersal, pollination and
supplying guano for fertilizer.
Yet environmental challenges are mounting, and bats, like most wild species,
face multiple threats.
“Loss of habitat, pesticides and the bush meat trade are currently the biggest
threats to bat populations worldwide,” she cautioned.
Some bat species are already classified as endangered or threatened.
Garnering support for research remains tricky however.
“The cute or the large and iconic species tend to get a lot of funding and are
often top of mind when the public think of conservation. But the smaller
animals can play and equally large role in the environment,” Curtis said.
Nevertheless, the GGF recognized the importance for more research.
Angus Middleton of the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), Nedbank’s
technical support partner and administrator of the GGF, said bats have been
proven to be “very important bio-indicators”, whose presence or absence can
be used to understand the environmental state of areas.
Research has further shown that bats are important in the design and
assessment of renewable energy facilities, particularly wind energy.
“So this project will eventually allow us to get a better insight into the
distribution and diversity of bat species in Namibia and from that we should be
able to improve our environmental scoping and planning.”