The study could help solve a longstanding dilemma in bat research by providing a reliable way to identify individual bats.
Being able to identify individuals in a population is crucial in wildlife research. Bat researchers have struggled to do this for decades, as there has been no reliable method of identification that does not endanger a bat or alter its behavior.
However, USDA Forest Service scientist Sybill Amelon and her team of researchers, Sarah Hooper and Kathryn Womack, both of the University of Missouri, have made an important discovery about bat wings that could solve the problem of bat identification.
The surface of bat wing tissue is crisscrossed by small lines. These lines are collagen-elastin bundles and their purpose is to strengthen wing tissue while also leaving it flexible enough for flight.
In the study, the researchers examined little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, big brown bats, and tricolored bats in order to determine whether the unique patterns (“wing prints”) formed by the collagen-elastin bundles on their wings could reliably be used to identify individuals. In order to qualify as a reliable method, wing analysis would have to satisfy the following scientific standards for measuring uniqueness: universality, distinctiveness, permanence, and collectability.
According to Amelon:
“It is always important to use research techniques that do not diminish the health or survival of the animals we study, but white-nose syndrome has made this even more critical in bat research.”
White-nose syndrome is the result of a fungus that damages wing tissue. Fortunately, the researchers discovered that even in wings that had sustained damage due to fungus, the patterns made by the collagen-elastin bundles were still intact. With some basic training, people were able to identify bats based on photographs of their wing prints with a 96% success rate.
Director of the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, Tony Ferguson said:
“Bats are a major predator of forest and agricultural insects and are important to forest health…This research is one of the ways that the Forest Service is advancing knowledge of an elusive species and contributing to the national effort to control white-nose syndrome.”
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