Young red flying fox hanging upside down

‘Wing prints’ prove unique as method for identifying and tracking bats

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US researchers have found that 'wing prints' are as effective a way of identifying bats as fingerprints are of identifying people.

This could allow conservationists to identify individual creatures without changing their behaviour, a key issue in wildlife research. Tracking techniques commonly in use, such as capturing and tagging animals with GPS trackers or data loggers (which can be clipped, glued or sutured on to the body) are fiddly and can cause trauma and disturb their habits.

Now, scientists from the Northern Research Station of the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the University of Missouri have found that the patterns visible in the wings of bats can be used as a highly reliable method for identifying individuals.

It is becoming more popular now to recognise individual animals based on features such as the shape of tail flukes, whisper arrangements and body patterning. These biological features must be universal in the species, distinctive, permanent and collectable.

With these criteria in mind, the team studied the wing prints of four different types of bats - brown bats, northern long-eared bats, big brown bats and tricoloured bats - to investigate whether their wing prints could be used to recognise individuals reliably. They looked at the “collagen-elastin bundles” of the bats: fine lines that appear to criss-cross the tissue of bats’ wings and which play an important role in making flight possible.

“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 [which affects wing tissue] has made this even more critical in bat research,” said Sybill Amelon, a Forest Service scientist.

Even when afflicted with white-nose syndrome, the wings, with their distinct markings, remained distinct.

After six weeks and 1,212 photographs of bats’ wings, the researchers concluded that they were able to re-identify individuals based solely in their wing prints. After basic training, participants were able to identify bats correctly based on their wing prints 96 per cent of the time.

“Bats are a major predator of forest and agricultural insects and are important to forest health,” said Tony Ferguson, director of the research station. “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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