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PARTNERSHIPS FOR ENHANCED ENGAGEMENT IN RESEARCH (PEER)
Cycle 8 (2019 Deadline)


Distribution and species diversity of bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera) in Kenya

PI: Paul Webala (paul.webala@gmail.com), Maasai Mara University
U.S. Partner: Dawn Zimmerman, The Smithsonian Institution
Project Dates: January 2020 - December 2020

Project Overview:

In the face of unprecedented population declines in many wildlife species, monitoring changes in ecological communities is critically important for conservation planning and decision making. Bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera), with approximately 1,400 species, are the second-largest mammalian group on earth. They are also ideal biodiversity and environmental health indicators since they have a wide range of ecological traits and tolerances to environmental variables, playing key roles in ecosystems. Since many bat species use sound to detect, localize and classify objects, they can be monitored remotely and non-invasively by acoustic sensors. Acoustic monitoring is therefore a useful conservation tool to monitor anthropogenic effects on biodiversity. However, the paucity of local call reference libraries presents a major challenge to monitoring bats in tropical, megadiverse regions. Kenya is home to momre than 104 bat species, but despite the high diversity, they have not been systematically surveyed. In addition, more than 20% of the species are endangered and severely threatened due to anthropogenic drivers (e.g., habitat loss, climate change). The PI Dr. Webala and his colleagues will survey select Kenyan preserves and remote and hitherto unsampled areas to collect samples (vouchers, fecal samples, tissue/wing biopsies), document distributional limits for future studies (e.g., disease ecology), and record vocalizations from more than 90 known insectivorous bat species. A combination of morphology, genetics, and vocalizations will be used to speciate the bats. Through this assessment, this study should help to deepen our understanding of bat biodiversity and will, for the first time in East Africa, record sounds of species to develop the capacity for identifying bats via sonograms. This sound library will represent a key resource for studying bats (ecology, wind energy, disease surveillance) and environmental change, and for scientists and key institutions tasked with monitoring and preserving biodiversity in Kenya (Kenya Wildlife Service, National Museums of Kenya, Maasai Mara University). Results from this first country-wide comprehensive bat species assessment are also relevant for wildlife management and public health policies.

Bats perform key ecological functions critical for maintaining ecosystems and contribute enormously to agricultural productivity through fertilization, seed dispersal, pollination, avoided crop losses, and unused pesticides. However, bats also host many zoonoses of global public health impact. Human activities, including encroachment into natural habitats, can increase exposure to bats and provide opportunities for infections to spill over from bats to other animals and humans. Conservation of bats and their habitat therefore has broad implications for human wellbeing and environmental sustainability while simultaneously reducing the potential for pathogen spillover to occur. Aside from providing important materials for systematic, taxonomic, and disease ecology studies and thus improving our understanding of Kenya’s rich bat biodiversity, the project will also compile the first comprehensive and easily accessible depository and source of reference for bat echolocation calls in East Africa and elsewhere in Africa. This library will aid the assessment of bat echolocation call variation, and provide researchers, consultancies and local wildlife institutions with a central source of reference calls to use in future studies focusing on wind energy, bat conservation, biodiversity change, and disease ecology. Beyond capacity building for researchers and students, the project will also include engagement with local communities in survey areas through information dissemination on the need to conserve bats and their habitats for their roles in ecosystems, agriculture, and public health. The increased baseline knowledge of bat diversity and localization will also served as a valuable basis for future monitoring of biodiversity and environmental changes, as well as emergent infectious disease monitoring and response.


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