A Batty Placement at Durrell Wildlife

Me at Durrell wildlife park

I am new to this world of blogging.  Pray….humour me and I will deliver what goods I can!   🙂  I have begun with my recent placement at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey, where I carried out my dissertation study on their colony of Livingstone’s Fruit Bats.

A young girl’s dream

Growing up on Jersey’s diddier neighbour, Guernsey, I spent a considerable amount of time at Durrell Wildlife Park.  My mother and grandparents treated me and my brother to annual visits throughout our childhood, and it was the highlight of my summer holidays!

As I’m sure you all did as children, I longed to stand where the keepers stood.  I dreamt of being a part of the Durrell team.  Over the last ten years I have checked Durrell’s ‘careers’ webpage so often it’s bordered on obsession.

But, my fellow students, perseverance is the key!

At the end of last year Durrell placed an advert for a publications and field data volunteer in their research centre based in Bath (five minutes from my house, and I didn’t even know it was there)!  Once settled into this role I was offered the opportunity to study Durrell’s 7 newly born Livingstone’s Fruit Bats.  Before I knew what was happening, I was on the 4 hour ferry ride to Jersey, brimming with excitement.

As could only be expected in the middle of summer, and in a bat tunnel, my daily routine was hot and sweaty.  But I didn’t care, every day I felt like a child on Christmas morning.  My friend kindly put me up during my visit, so, in keeping with my student budget, I avoided the cost of public transport and walked an hour there and back every day; it was more than worth it.

A gaggle of red breasted geese always accompanied me on my walk through the park.  This variation on morning traffic was a welcome change.  As we waved good morning to fellow colleagues, we passed a pat of flamingos rocking their morning chorus and crossed paths with golden lion tamarins greedily foraging for their morning meal.  Upon reaching the bat tunnel I bid the geese goodbye and set about my days’ work.

Red Breasted Geese

A day in the life of a fruit bat

My daily routine went a little like this:

09.30:  Arrive at the park and avoid the temptation to gaze at all the animals on my way to the bat tunnel.

10.00: Begin bat pup observations.  I spent fifteen minutes focal sampling each of the seven pups, recording their spatial proximity from their mother, and the behaviours they exhibited.  Two of the pups were located in the main tunnel (on display to the public), and the other five were kept in isolation, off display.

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My office for two weeks!

11.45:   Fresh air.  I spent my short lunch break exploring the park, and ate my lunch with Gorillas, Sun Bears, flamingos and Tamarins.

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SONY DSC

12:15/14.45:  Observations rounds two and three.  In order to observe all the pups equally at each fifteen minute interval, I changed the order of my observations every round.

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In the main tunnel the bats wake and stretch ready for their morning feed.

A Brief natural history of the Livingstone’s Fruit bat

Endemic to the Comoros Islands, the Livingstone’s fruit bat (Pteropus livingstonii) is critically endangered as a result of increased persecution.  Due to deforestation, their roosting sites and food sources are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Unlike microbats, fruitbats (megabats) are diurnal, this much is clear due to their frugivorous diet.  These bats are among the largest of the fruit bats, and roost in colonies of up to 100 individuals (sometimes exceeding that).  Livingstone’s are covered in black hair with tawny patches, have rounded ears, large rounded eyes, and hairless black wings.  Located in montane forests above 200m, they are known to favour certain species of trees as roost sties, from which they sometimes travel several kilometres a day in search of food.  They protect themselves from predators with a series of chattering sounds, and wing claps.

Ponderings and observations

Like most people, before beginning my degree, bats were not an animal that featured on my radar; I found them mysterious but they did not excite me the same way the megafauna did.  I guess this is typical of most youngsters.

That all changed during my time at Durrell.  Being close to the fruit bats, being able to see every little detail, and more importantly observe the bond between mum and pup made my heart race a little.    The pups were so wonderfully…..pup like!  There is no other way to describe it, they have such innocent, large eyes that make you stop, and quite often I would forget I was supposed to be recording data.

I noticed a number of trends that were in keeping with expectations, and also a few anomalies.  One mother, Bazmini, had a 4 week old pup (6 weeks when I left) who was larger and more independent than all the others, despite being amongst the youngest.  In contrast, the eldest pup, who belonged to Echo, took a good few days to relieve mum of her grip, thereby allowing her to forage for food.  This is likely to be attributed to the fact that Echo was situated in the main tunnel, and had circa 40 other bats to compete with/protect her pup from.  The overall trend for all pups however, was an increase in the amount of time spent apart from mum, and the distance in which they were parted – a positive observation.

Livingstone's Fruit Bat pup
Bazmini’s alert and inquisitive pup.

The purpose of the study was to collect baseline data.  Very few studies have been carried out on fruit bat behavior, and even fewer on juveniles.  This study (albeit a short one) will not only provide some insight into the social developments of fruits bats and their respective timings, but will enable us to compare between the different ages (the pups ranged from 4 weeks to 10 weeks old).  Repeating this study on subsequent populations would provide a better representation, and a longer study would result in even more data; this study will not provide any information on pups older than 3 months old

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Kristina Middleton is an aspiring wildlife conservationist with big dreams. Based in Bath, she is currently researching the early social developments of the critically endangered Livingstone's Fruit Bat. She is a field data and publications volunteer for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and a freelance wildlife surveyor for Keystone Environmental. She has worked in the field in South Africa, and Madagascar, assisting important wildlife conservation initiatives, and is always seeking new opportunities to learn. Krissy is committed to a future in conservation and, by sharing her experiences, wishes to inspire others to get involved.

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