Over 200 scientists from 40 countries are attending the 10th European Bat Research Symposium where they will dispel myths regarding the blindness of these nocturnal creatures and explain the important role bats play in agriculture. NUI Galway's long involvement in bat research, first initiated by Professor James Fairley in the early 1980s, led to the University being chosen as the venue for the conference's first visit to Ireland.
A keynote address delivered by Professor Thomas Kunz, Professor of Biology at Boston University, will focus on the role bats play in controlling agricultural pests. For example, the local bat population of the Brazilian Free Tailed Bat species in south central Texas may exceed 100 million each night. These bats disperse over varied landscapes to feed on flying insects. Some of their prey includes crop pests such as the corn earworm and the cotton hole worm.
Dr James Dunne of NUI Galway's Department of Zoology explained how beneficial the creatures are in controlling Ireland's insect population.
"The small bat seen first at dusk, weaving around and over trees is the Pipistrelle. This is the most common bat in Ireland and feeds mainly on midges, mosquitoes, caddis flies and crane flies. A pipistrelle may eat 3,000 small insects in a single night. A roost of 100 can account for the annihilation of many millions of harmful insects over a summer," he said.
Dr Dunne also put paid to some of the more popular misconceptions about the common bat.
"Despite several myths, bats are not blind, they do not entangle themselves in people's hair and the species native to Ireland, do not spread disease."
Other areas to be explored throughout the week-long symposium include research which sheds light on the eating habits of bats. Although the vast majority of bats feed on insects, research by scientists in the Basque region has shown that the long-fingered bat is capable of also feeding on free swimming fish by plunging onto the water surface and grasping them with their hind feet.
The Lesser Horseshoe Bat is one of Europe's rarer species and is the subject of a number of papers to be delivered at the conference. Sinead Biggane, a researcher with the Department of Zoology at NUI Galway, has been part of a team who have been studying a maternity roost in County Clare for many years.
Using radio transmitters, Sinead tracked individual bats to determine their main feeding areas and pattern of feeding. She shows that the bats use mixed woodland, riparian woodland and associated habitats for foraging. They use hedgerows and stone walls to commute to their feeding areas and will not cover large open spaces. This research has important implications for the conservation of bats.
The economic boom throughout Europe has resulted in the destruction of many bat inhabited old buildings. The conference will include a special workshop which will deal with the problems associated with this growing trend and also the legal obligations under European law to protect bats and their habitats will be discussed.