Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bat research: not just about bats

One of the top science stories this week has been the discovery of a type of pitcher plant in which bats rest and defaecate during the day. Bats are indeed interesting creatures.

International 'Year of the Bat' takes place (bizarrely over two years) during 2011 and 2012 and aims to educate people regarding "the essential roles of bats in maintaining healthy ecosystems and human economies", according to Merlin Tuttle, an American ecologist and bat researcher.

"Bats are found nearly everywhere and approximately 1,200 species account for almost a quarter of all mammals. Nevertheless, in recent decades their populations have declined alarmingly. Many are now endangered, though they provide invaluable services that we cannot afford to loose" said Tuttle.

But bat research isn't just about saving the flying mammals; researchers investigating how to protect bats from extinction are also working with the US air force to design unmanned aircraft based on the mechanics of bat flight. Understanding how bats are able to fly in vast crowds without injury is key to designing drones which can fly in cluttered skies.

The sounds that bats make are also of interest to scientists. Australian scientists have recently shown that bats there have distinctive regional calls. Scientists took 4,000 bat calls and analysed them using custom-made software and was able to identify different species and sources.

The bats us the calls to navigate and hunt using the echolocation technique - where sounds, inaudible to humans, hit objects and bounce back.

There is also some evidence where bats have been useful for humans, particularly in the area of medicine. Researchers in the US have looked into using an enzyme present in vampire bat saliva to thin human blood and help save brain cells in stroke patients. Desmoteplase, a drug based on an enzyme from Desmodus Rotundus have produced mixed results.

Prof. Christopher Bladin, who also works on the same enzyme in Australia, is enthusiastic about the ability of bats to impact on human medicine: "Well vampire bats, you have to love them. I mean, they've got a range of novel pharmaceutical drugs inside them, so they're an animal dear to my heart and more importantly, dear to my brain".

You can find out more about bats and the Year of the Bat here.


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