- Chaverri Bat Lab, Universidad de Costa Rica, Golfito, Costa Rica
- Behaviour & Ethology, Experimental ecology, Social structure
Influence of local landscape and time of year on bat-road collision risks
Assessing bat-vehicle collision risks using acoustic 3D tracking
The loss of biodiversity is an issue of great concern, especially if the extinction of species or the loss of a large number of individuals within populations results in a loss of critical ecosystem services. We know that the most important threat to most species is habitat loss and degradation (Keil et al., 2015; Pimm et al., 2014); the latter can be caused by multiple anthropogenic activities, including pollution, introduction of invasive species and fragmentation (Brook et al., 2008; Scanes, 2018). Roads are a major cause of habitat fragmentation, isolating previously connected populations and being a direct source of mortality for animals that attempt to cross them (Spellberg, 1998).
While most studies have focused on the effect of roads on larger mammals (Bartonička et al., 2018; Litvaitis and Tash, 2008), in recent years many researchers have grown increasingly concerned about the risk of collision between bats and vehicles (Fensome and Mathews, 2016). For example, a recent publication by Medinas et al. (2021) found 509 bat casualties along a 51-km-long transect during a period of 3 years. Their study provides extremely valuable information to asses which factors primarily drive bat mortality on roads, yet it required a substantial investment of time coupled with the difficulty of detecting bat carcasses. Other studies have used acoustic monitoring as a proxy to gauge risk of collision based on estimates of bat density along roads (reviewed in Fensome and Mathews 2016); while the results of such studies are valuable, the number of passes recorded does not necessarily equal collision risk, as many species may simply avoid crossing the roads. Understanding the risk of collisions is of vital importance for adequate planning of road construction, particularly for key sites that harbor threatened bat species or unusually large populations, especially if these are already greatly impacted by other anthropogenic activities (e.g. wind turbines; Kunz et al. 2007) or unusually deadly pathogens (e.g. white-nose syndrome; Blehert et al. 2009).
The study by Roemer et al. (2020) titled “Influence of local landscape and time of year on bat-road collision risks”, is a welcome addition to our understanding of bat collision risk as it employs a more accurate assessment of bat collision risk based on acoustic monitoring and tracking of flight paths. The goal of the study of Roemer and collaborators, which was conducted at 66 study sites in the Mediterranean region, is to provide an assessment of collision risk based on bat activity near roads. They collected a substantial amount of information for several species: more than 30,000 estimated flight trajectories for 21+ species, including Barbastella barbastellus, Myotis spp., Plecotus sp., Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, Miniopterus schreibersii, Pipistrellus spp., Nyctalus leisleri, and others. They assess risk based on estimates of 1) species abundance from acoustic monitoring, 2) direction of flight paths along roads, and 3) bat-vehicle co-occurrence.
Their findings suggest that risk is habitat, species, guild, and season-specific. Roads within forested habitats posed the largest threats for most species, particularly since most flights within these habitats occurred at the zone of collision risk. They also found that bats typically fly parallel to the road axis regardless of habitat type, which they argue supports the idea that bats may use roads as corridors. The results of their study, as expected, also show that the majority of bat passes were detected during summer or autumn, depending on species, yet they provide novel findings of an increase in risky behaviors during autumn, when the number of passes at the zone of collision risk increased significantly. Their results also suggest that mid-range echolocators, a classification that is based on call design and parameters (Frey-Ehrenbold et al., 2013), had a larger portion of flights in the zone at risk, thus potentially making them more susceptible than short and long-range echolocators to collisions with vehicles.
The methods employed by Roemer et al. (2020) could further help us determine how roads pose species and site-specific threats in a diversity of places without the need to invest a significant amount of time locating bat carcasses. Their findings are also important as they could provide valuable information for deciding where new roads should be constructed, particularly if the most vulnerable species are abundant, perhaps due to the presence of important roost sites. They also show how habitats near larger roads could increase threats, providing an important first step for recommendations regarding road construction and maintenance. As pointed out by one reviewer, one possible limitation of the study is that the results are not supported by the identification of carcasses. For example, does an increase in the number of identified flights at the zone of risk really translate into an increase in the number of collisions? Regardless of the latter, the paper’s methods and results are very valuable and provide an important step towards developing additional tools to assess bat-vehicle collision risks.
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