Photo on the left: Dr Clare Marie Mifsud working at Prof. Adriana Vella Conservation genetics lab at the University of Malta; photo on the right: Handling of delicate protected animals requires all necessary precautions and licenses to avoid unnecessary harm and disturbance during night fieldwork
Bats across the world play important roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems by providing essential ecosystem services that range from natural pest control by echolocating insect-eating bats to pollination by non-echolocating fruit-eating bats. Unfortunately, bat populations across the globe have been declining which in turn threatens the ecological and economic benefits they provide. Important ecological benefits include the reduction of pesticide use in agricultural landscapes which provides an economical advantage by reducing costs of pesticide application incurred by farmers and the associated pollution and health hazards to the environment and humans.
In order to ensure the survival of bats and their vital ecological roles, conservation strategies need to be devised based on scientific knowledge. In order to contribute towards a strategy for the conservation of bat populations in Malta the PhD research project by Dr Clare Marie Mifsud investigated the diet and prey selection patterns of bats in Malta.
"With my previously acquired expertise in bioacoustics of local bats through my MSc research, in 2015, and keen interest in exploring other innovative ways of studying bats at PhD level at the University of Malta, I was awarded a scholarship by the Endeavour Scholarship Scheme in Malta. The study of nocturnal flying mammals is often seen as very difficult and it actually is but this scholarship award, the excellent research group I joined at the University of Malta and my passion for investigating these interesting species surmounted difficulties and challenges," said Dr Clare Marie Mifsud.
Mist netting to study bats
"The PhD journey involved five years as a full-time researcher carrying out extensive fieldwork, laboratory work, brain-storming, data analyses, and writing. The scholarship funded all materials needed to carry out this venture allowing me to focus on my research while working part-time," continued Dr Mifsud.
"This PhD research was supervised by Prof. Adriana Vella, to whom I express my deepest gratitude for her professional guidance, dedication, expertise, and encouragement. She was my inspiration to strive for nothing less than perfect outcomes. I greatly appreciate the endless opportunities provided, to allow me to complete this PhD dissertation and its scientific achievements with joy and determination. It was a great privilege to work with her and other members of her Conservation Biology Research Group (CBRG), especially Dr Noel Vella, post-doc researcher at the time, for sharing his expertise too", she said.
Recording bats with acoustic bat detector equipment. Assistance from BICREF volunteers was an invaluable asset to this PhD research project
The participation of CBRG and BICREF at Science in Citadel to raise awareness on the need to conserve bats in Malta
The conservation of bats is also dependent on increasing public awareness on the need to protect bats and their habitats. The local NGO, the Biological Conservation Research Foundation (BICREF) targets this aim by reaching various platforms such as local media, exhibitions and festivals. This bat research saw the interested contribution of various BICREF volunteers, also under the care of Prof. Adriana Vella, a really passionate conservation biologist.
All bat species in Malta are legally protected and therefore all the necessary research permits were first obtained from the responsible authority. This extensive research revealed important associations of bats to Maltese habitats with results demonstrating the importance of cliffs and disused quarries. This shows the need to closely assess proposed developments of disused quarries to ensure effective conservation of bat populations. Currently only 32% of the bat sites identified through this research are included within the Natura 2000 network and therefore this study serves as a guide to assess the state and effectiveness of current conservation measures adopted in Malta.
Through this research, scientific articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals including the discovery of the genetic identity for Maltese populations of bat species. This research also involved studies on bat prey including insects. Through innovative genetic tools new beetle species have also been discovered for the Maltese Islands, therefore contributing to new knowledge and conservation prospects for Maltese biodiversity. Additionally, results highlighted that insect biodiversity conservation is integrally linked to local bat conservation efforts.
Discoveries achieved through this PhD research are fundamental to the conservation of bats and their ecosystem services, providing for the much-needed evidence-based conservation strategies for the bat populations in Malta.