DNA and Droppings
Transforming the detection of bat species in ecological surveys
Bat populations can show us the rate of environmental change, but are in severe decline due a loss of habitat, often as a result of building work and development. Professor Robin Allaby’s research has developed an ecological forensics service that helps ecological surveyors identify and track different bat species, helping to preserve and protect their roosts.
Bat populations are declining at a phenomenal rate and species identification is crucial for their conservation. Their nocturnal lifestyle and seasonal behaviour, however, can make traditional surveying and classification difficult. New methods of identification are crucial for the protection of bat populations themselves, but also for understanding more about the local food chain and environment.
Having worked on ancient DNA samples from archaeological finds, Professor Allaby found that the same science could identify more recent samples due to a number of key discoveries:
DNA degradation is largely independent of age
Most DNA decay and fragmentation happens soon after deposition
Technology used to examine ancient DNA could therefore be used on environmental samples
Applying archaeological technology to modern material increased extraction and classification success rates. Tiny amounts of guano or fur left in the field could identify bat species and differentiate them from other small mammals like dogs, cats, rodents, weasels, badgers and ferrets.
Since 2009, Professor Allaby’s Bat Genotyping Service (BGS) has set the standard for bat identification in the UK. It serves 63% of the sector, growing over 30% every year since 2013 and is based solely on word of mouth recommendation without the assistance of any commercial advertising. The DNA analysis pioneered at Warwick has become best practice for detecting and identifying bats with over 1200 users having befitted from the service across the UK through analysis of 5000 samples.
This service has since been expanded to track a wide range of mammals and is inspiring other companies to adopt the practice. The data collected by the research team has gone on to inform activities as diverse as building work, studies of migration and climate change, protected endangered bat species and aided in the discovery of new niche species previously confused with bats.
Conservation efforts have also been boosted as a result of the BGS. Precise identification of the species under threat can ensure that construction moves forward in ways that protect bat populations. Additionally, the movements of UK species and the migrations of foreign bats have become much easier to track because of the data collected by the BGS. This has even resulted in supposed bat droppings being identified as belonging to other species. The discovery of shrews in loft spaces, a previously unknown niche, was made possible by BGS’s analysis of samples collected in the field. Commercial companies are rapidly developing to serve the need for ecological forensics that Professor Allaby first identified and provided the model for.