words | Nicole Macedo photos | Stewart Finlayson
The link between bats and the occult stems from an ancient Asian myth about vampires that fed on the blood of innocent sleeping victims. In 1897, Irish horror author Bram Stoker brought the association between bats and vampires into the mainstream.
The concept follows the ‘vampire bat’, a species native to Central and South America that, much like the medieval monster of its namesake, feeds on blood (of livestock though, not humans) as its prey sleeps. The mythical vampire pre-dates the discovery of the bat species by over four hundred years, meaning the bats must be named after the gothic creatures. Unlike the vampires of folklore however, vampire bats don’t actually suck blood, but instead lap it up after making an incision in the flesh with their teeth. Thanks to this association, bats have been getting a bad rap for centuries. There are 1,240 known species of bat in the world, the majority of which feed on insects, eight of which are present in Gibraltar. The Rock on which we reside is home to a great deal of unique fauna, much of it well documented and praised; macaques, Barbary partridges, exotic birds of prey, dolphins, whales and other marine mammals, but somehow bats have been left out of the list, with little documentation on their presence and movement available.
The Gib Bats boys
In 2013, local friends and animal enthusiasts Stewart Finlayson, Tyson Holmes and Giovanni Santini set out to discover the hidden lives of these elusive creatures that are often spotted darting across the twilit sky. Their interest was first piqued when notable bat researcher James Shipman contacted The Gibraltar Museum, the workplace of both Stewart and Tyson, in an effort to dig up research on local bat species. Appropriately, Tyson tells me, the project was initiated on Halloween. ‘The official list of species in Gibraltar at the time only had four on it, one of which we already knew was locally extinct. We thought it would be a good opportunity to update that list, to be able to protect and conserve the species. We’ve actually brought the official list up to eight species and we’re in a position that we can say that there should be another species on that list relatively soon. The reason we haven’t committed to it is that we have preliminary findings which we need to confirm,’ the group explains. Bats are tremendously misunderstood mammals, particularly with the unfortunate Dracula mix up and their unusual features. Although popular culture has also associated the mysterious nature of bats with everyone’s favourite DC superhero, Batman himself, who like the night time dwelling mammal, only appears after the sun goes down.
In its three years of existence, the three main Gib Bats members have been fully trained to handle the species, allowing them to now track their movements, research them and document their existence on the Rock. Through immense dedication, they became qualified under training carried out by James who helped set up the initiative that he calls ‘a European Bat research project’. After his initial visit, he felt that Gibraltar had tremendous potential. The trio also carried out further training elsewhere and experienced a great deal of ‘hands on’ work. Tyson insists that they have also spent much personal time researching and reading about the species. Much of their work is dedicated to conserving and establishing local species. Their most recent project has seen collaborations formed with universities in Morocco, Algeria, Spain and zoo colonies in Portugal. ‘It’s a much larger scale project, looking for the metapopulation of certain species. We’re going to be surveying large areas in Andalucia, from this region up to Extremadura. We have colleagues in Morocco and Algeria also looking out for the bats that we are tagging and trying to track the movement of, to see where our bats come from.’
Sir Humphrey and the local species
Bats are the only mammals capable of true and sustained flights. Their intricate wings are covered in a thin membrane that stretches all the way to the ankle and tail. Their fingers are much more flexible than that of any other mammals. ‘We’ve all been involved with wildlife, in one way or another, earlier on in our lives. I think the thing about bats is that so little is known about them because so few people are working on bats. There’re a lot of questions unanswered,’ Stewart notes.
During our chat, an ominous looking box is brought into the room and left on the table top. Reaching his hand in confidently, Tyson reveals a tiny, baby Isabelline Serotine curled up in the palm of his hand, peering his canine looking face at us. His body makes him look like a rodent, until you spot his delicate wings, which are just incredible and unlike anything I’ve seen on an animal before. ‘He’s more related to you than a rodent,’ they explain to me. ‘The latin name for a bat, actually translates to hand wing,’ Tyson divulges, showing me his fingers. He is introduced to me as Sir Humphrey, and has been in the care of the Gib Bats boys for a few weeks. They tell me they’ve had mixed success in maintaining bats in captivity as young bat require a huge amount of care, having to be fed milk very often and their habitat kept at an extremely high temperature. Detailing the eight species local to the Rock, the team outlines them from smallest to largest starting with the Soprano Pippistrelle, and their slightly larger family members the Common Pippistrelle and the Kuhl’s Pippistrelle. The Pippistrelle’s preferred dwelling is in the cracks and crevices of urban buildings, including roof tiles, cavity walls, and wall cladding. They tend to emerge during twilight and are often seen darting around residential areas in the evenings. Kuhl’s were only discovered two years ago on the Rock.
The Shreibers bat is medium sized and is exclusively cave dwelling. The species was once found in abundance locally, but has suffered a sharp decline, with only hundreds now left.
The Issabeline Serotine species was discovered locally soon after Gib Bats was initiated. Despite being mostly rock dwelling, they have adapted to living in urban areas.
The European Free-tailed is Europe’s second largest species, mostly living in crevices in limestone caves. They are rarely seen as they emerge quite late and fly at a high altitude.
The Greater Noctule bat is Europe’s largest and rarest species, feeding on birds, particularly during migration periods. These tree dwellers hunt their prey during flight.
Most recently, the team were alerted to the existence of the Greater horseshoe species, which was found during a Gibraltar Museum excavation within the Rock.
‘99% of the Gibraltar bat population has disappeared, that is a fact,’ Stewart laments. Their habitats are often disrupted, particularly since neighbouring town La Linea de la Concepcion transformed into a built up area, eradicating much of the flat wasteland areas that were once prime bat locations, rife with insects. Over 20% of the world’s bat population is under the threat of extinction, with twenty-five of the many species classes as Critically Endangered. In Europe, over 95% of the bat population has disappeared over time. ‘I would say that Gibraltar was once an incredibly important location for bats, we’ve found evidence that the population was extremely high twenty or thirty years ago. The problem that Gibraltar has had is that the numer really has dropped. It’s only in the last five years that people have become aware of it and are starting to try and help these populations. It seems that there has been a slight pick up from that crash, thanks to legislation and planning.’
Pesticides have had a huge influence in the population decline, and although they were banned years ago, the rate at which bats reproduce is so slow that to boost numbers will take hundreds of years. ‘Generally, they only have one pup a year’.
Many bat enthusiasts also put the near extinction of some species down to the public’s ill informed prejudices against bats. ‘I think it’s important to let people know that there is nothing to fear about these animals. These bats eat the cockroaches and mosquitos that people generally don’t like or want around. Bats are really important to the ecosystem.’
With help from the Department for the Environment, particularly Stephen Warr, who has had a keen interest and a lot of participation in the project, the word about bats is being spread, and conservation initiatives have become a reality. Stewart tells me that the Government have been very helpful throughout the project, as well as GONHS (Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society) who are also members of the group. Once in a while they organise Bat Nights on which they take the general public around Gibraltar to discover more about the species. ‘I think it was about two years ago we had a walk that attracted around two hundred and fifty people. Young people really are curious. Once you show a child a bat, they are really keen. We really want to generate this awareness. We get lots of enquiries about setting up bat boxes, which give the bats an area where they can frequent or even establish a colony.’
Bat boxes have been set up by the Department for the Environment around different parts of Gibraltar. ‘The bats usually like facing north, you don’t want them in direct sunlight either. We always tell people that if they are interested, we are happy to go and see the sight and advise them.’ These artificial roosts offer more homes to bats, which have had many of their natural habitats removed because of human inhabitation. ‘Everywhere around the world bats are incredibly well protected, in Gibraltar we have our laws that are similar to those in the UK. To be able to handle a bat, if one is found, you need to be licensed by the Government and we are the ones here who are.’
For more info, contact the Gib Bats team at [email protected]. If you come across a bat locally, contact them on 200 74289, 200 66588 or 58007963.