What happened next? The southern bent-wing went like a bat out of hell

This article is part of a special Cosmos series where our newsroom journalists follow up science from the archive, to find out: What happened next?

Last year, a critically endangered little bat took out first place in Cosmos’ inaugural Australian Mammal of the Year competition: the southern bent-wing bat.

So, what happened next? Nicola Bail – Zoos Victoria’s Coordinator of the southern bent-wing bat National Recovery Team – spoke to Cosmos about the big shifts for the species in the year since the win.

“It used to be that people didn’t even really know their name,” says Bail. “Now, I’ll meet people in the southeast where I live in South Australia and at any mention of a bat they’re like ‘Oh, is that the one I heard on the radio, the southern bent-wing bat?’

“Since the win, we’ve had a lot more interest in the bats from the public, a lot more positive attention, and a lot of people that live in the range of the southern bent-wing bat who want to help, which has just been incredible for us really.”

This critically endangered microbat is found only in southwest Victoria and southeast South Australia, where they roost in caves.

According to Bail, the increased media interest has given the Recovery Team a greater platform to reach local communities and inform them about the key threats and what people can do to help.

“There are dozens of roosts in South Australia alone that the bats use and it’s really hard to try and target everyone that might be near one, or might have one, or might previously have been entering that roost without authorisation, you know, doing sort of the wrong thing.”

One of the major threats facing southern bent-wing bats is disturbance at roosts, so raising awareness about unauthorised visitations is vital to reduce disturbance and reduce biosecurity risks.

“To our knowledge there is a level, we’re not sure what the level is, of unauthorised visitations at some of these caves. So just people going in and exploring caves without getting permits or looking into it first. They don’t know that they’re doing the wrong thing a lot of the time,” explains Bail.

“[Southern bent-wing bats are] a cave-only bat that’s evolved for thousands  of years without predators in the roosts, and without lights in the roosts. Light is really disturbing and people going into a cave with bright lights, making loud noises, is really not natural for southern bent-wing bats and it can cause a lot of distress, which can impact their health.”

This can be even more detrimental if human encroachment into roosts occurs over winter. This is when the bats have stored up fat and are in a state of torpor, where they drop their body temperature and metabolic rate to save energy.

“I think entering into most caves on public land is through permits these days. And if you apply for a permit to go into a cave, usually, they’re pretty good about asking how you’ll behave and letting you know what the threats are and how you should behave,” she adds.

“Really, the unauthorised entries are a big concern.”

The species has been recognised in another important way…“We have had one big change in the past year. The southern bent-wing bat was included as a priority species on the 2022-2032 Threatened Species Action Plan by the Federal Government,” says Bail.

“This has been really huge for us. And we don’t know how much the increased platform has contributed to this, but whatever’s led to this has, either way, gone in our favour, because it just opens up funding opportunities for us.

“It has increased the amount of money that we can actually put towards our management actions, which is something that’s pretty new to us and really exciting. It’s giving us a lot of hope and widens the scope of what we can do as a Recovery Team.”

While the southern bent-wing bat is a well-studied species, according to Bail, there is still a lot we don’t know about them. So, while no new research has been published in the past year, there is a lot of exciting research that is underway.

Cosmos reported on one unpublished study earlier this year, in which Bail is using ultrasound to estimate the proportion of females reproducing each year.

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A southern bent-wing bat receiving an ultrasound in 2022. Credit: Nicola Bail

“There are multiple research students at the moment all addressing knowledge gaps in our understanding of southern bent-wing bats,” adds Bail.

“There are other research students studying threats that they might be facing, and looking in detail at all of the things that are going to help us with on-ground planning our conservation actions.”

“It does take a bit of time all up, but I feel like we’re in a pretty good spot with the Recovery Team at the moment because we have a lot of ongoing population monitoring and management of roosts that’s going on alongside the research.”

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