Queensland bat rescuers build tiny houses for micro bats in last-ditch attempt to save species

It’s mealtime and a small group of volunteers are cutting fresh fruit and mixing a special juice with added salt for a small group of picky eaters.

This rescue group on Queensland’s Capricorn Coast typically takes care of the megabats – or fruit bats – but now their energy is focused on saving their much, much smaller cousins: the microbats.

These tiny bats typically live in caves, but mining operations and land clearing have destroyed much of their natural habitat. Bat Care Capricornia therefore enlisted the help of a local Men’s Shed group to build very small houses for vulnerable species.

Since hosting a special microbats information weekend, the number of volunteers has grown from a handful to almost 20.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“There has been a lot of deforestation here,” explained Pam Purton of Bat Care Capricornia.

These delicate, furry flying mammals can weigh as little as 3 grams, with the largest species reaching as little as 150g.

Close-up of a middle aged woman smiling enthusiastically at the camera.
Pam Purton says microbat houses made by a local Men’s Shed group will be sold in the markets. (ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

Australia is home to around 70 species of microbats, half of which are threatened, according to the Department of the Environment.

Three of these species are found in central Queensland: the endangered ghost bat and big-eared magpie bat, and the critically endangered coastal scabbard bat.

a bat with a pretty face hanging from the roof of a cave
Professor Simon Robson says that if people take a close look at bats, they will realize that they are quite beautiful and amazing creatures.(Provided: Ministry of the Environment)

Bat Care Capricornia hopes the bat houses, which look like upside down letterboxes, will not only provide shelter for the tiny mammals, but also raise awareness of their plight.

The rescue group is working with local landowners and conservation groups to distribute bat houses and collect data for research.

“We wanted to create a space where there are lots of micro bats so that we could start experimenting with an integrated pest management plan on how micro bats manage insect populations,” he said. Mrs Purton said.

What looks like an upside down letterbox bolted to a tree
Bats crawl around these homes – especially during the colder months – and leave little scratch marks on the outside, so it’s clear they’re in use. (ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

Is it too late for some species?

Professor Simon Robson, academic and biologist at CQ University, praised the group’s initiative.

A middle-aged man sits at his desk holding a book about bats.
Professor Simon Robson says micro bats have been stereotyped negatively because they are difficult to see and fly at night.(ABC News: Travis Mead)

But hope is fading for the ghost bat, whose numbers locally have declined by nearly 80% since the 1990s.

Three years ago, research suggested there were only 50 bats left, and researchers suspect the cane toads may have had an impact on their declining population.

The colony is on Mount Etna, 30 kilometers north of Rockhampton. It has Australia’s largest maternity cave and was the focus of Australia’s longest-running conservation campaign on mining that destroyed a number of caves from the 1960s to the 1990s.

A small mountain in the distance at sunset.
Etna has the largest maternity caves in Australia, but several have been destroyed by mining.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

Professor Robson and a team of students recently mapped the surrounding caves using remote sensors and echolocation in hopes of finding the elusive Ghost Bat.

They found nothing.

Better news for the bent-winged bat

There are better prospects for the Fold-winged Bat, which travels up to 1000 kilometers to the maternity caves for its breeding season from December.

Thousands of tiny curved-winged bats hanging from the roof of a cave
Look more closely! They are hundreds of tiny bats with curved wings on the roof of a cave. (Provided: Ministry of the Environment)

“They will return to Etna, and there is a particular cave there that will hold over 100,000 bats – and then they will double when they have their babies,” Professor Robson said.

Professor Robson is also working with the Department of the Environment to study roosting sites in north Queensland, some of which have not been monitored for 30 years.

Cartography next

Lydia Georgeson, a student at CQ University, was part of the investigative team that used a thermal imager to capture body heat from bats.

She also maps the Capricorn Caves in 3D for future scientific research.

A young woman stands in front of a scanner on a tripod in a cave, smiling
Lydia Georgeson says the Capricorn caves are vital for micro bats and great care is taken not to disturb them. (ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

These caves – a private ecotourism company – are part of the same system as the Etna Caves, but researchers here have also recorded a few sightings of ghost bats.

“It’s something that we try to monitor, and every time we see a ghost bat in these caves, we’re pretty excited,” Ms. Georgeson said.

“We have quite a few little bats with curved wings that are going to hang out here so we can have tens of thousands of these bats in this cave and they can go to Etna as well.”

Close up of a bat with folded wings
Mrs. Georgeson says that micro-bats, like this bat with bent wings, are a natural pesticide because when there are thousands, they eat millions of insects.(Provided: CQUniversity)

The Capricorn Caves are also working with the Department of the Environment, which says it is working with an acoustic analyst to obtain ghost bat counts from acoustic recordings.

The work is not yet finalized.

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