Bats can thrive after bushfire, study finds

By Liz Emmett 12 March 2013
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Bat communities can sustain, and even increase, after fire, new research claims.

BATS CAN WITHSTAND serious bushfires, and in some cases benefit from them, new research suggests.

The first study to document the effect of fire on bats, from experts in Australia and the USA, suggests bat activity will likely sustain, and may even increase, after a habitat is severely burned.

“People worry greatly about the impact of fire on biodiversity, and this study shows a very positive result,” says Dr Joe Fontaine, study co-author and ecologistbased at Murdoch University in Perth.

How fire impacts bats

Led by ecologists from the University of California, Joe’s team collected data one year after a 2002 fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which burned 61,000ha at varying levels of severity.

The researchers measured bat activity by recording the animals’ foraging calls in unburned, moderately burned and severely burned parts of the forest. The results, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that bat activity either remained the same or increased in burned areas, as compared to areas less affected by fire.

The results suggest that vegetation in the forest canopy can obstruct bats from flying to the forest floor, and make foraging less successful.

“[The finding] clearly shows there was something about the wake of the fire that the bats liked,” Joe says. It may be that it “clears the clutter that can make foraging difficult, and there can be more insects for bats to eat.”

Australian bats resistant to bushfire

Though the findings are from  the US, they are also relevant to Australia – particularly to forests in the country’s south-east, which have a similar ecology to those in California.

Joanna Burgar, a PhD student at Murdoch University, has studied the impact of restored forest on bats in the Jarrah Forest, WA. She says there are parallels between her findings and those of the American study, particularly concerning the differing reactions of species.

The study found that larger-bodied bat species, for example, were likely to remain after a fire, possibly due to their preference for burned out areas in aid of navigation through trees and other obstacles.