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Olympic Bat Hunt

Posted by on July 17, 2012

Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) - Society of Biology blogNo, it’s not some cruel new sport for London 2012. This is Bats in Space, a collaboration between the artist Jeremy Deller and the Bat Conservation Trust. The project takes small groups around East London’s Olympic park at dusk, with bat detectors and adapted mobiles phones to make the high frequency bat calls audible and create visual displays of the sounds. Professor Kate Jones (UCL) is collecting recordings from the tours and tracking bat sightings on a map of the area.

Sadly it was a drizzly night when I went on Friday. Bats struggle to echolocate when the sky is full of blobs of water, and we only caught a fleeting glimpse of one (we think a Common Pipistrelle, the UK’s most common bat species) under a bridge. We had little luck with the detectors, too, but did get to hear the unmistakable whirring clicks of a bat closing in on its prey a couple of times.

The Bats in Space walks have been extremely popular according to our guide, a PhD student studying bat populations. I can see why the idea would appeal to east London’s young population, starved of wildlife in the capital and curious to see the Olympic park close up.

I like the idea of encouraging people to look at nature differently too, re-badging what to some might sound boring as a live art experience where each ‘performance’ is unique. Deller, in his previous work, has shown footage of bats flying out of caves in Texas which visitors could watch in 3D, and is said to be fascinated by the animals.

Unfortunately, visitors to the project might feel the description of the project somewhat oversells the experience. The walk did not really take in the ‘perimeter of the Olympic site’ but took us away from it, across the monstrous A11 and along the rubbish-strewn canals of one of London’s ugliest boroughs, Newham. On the night, the purpose of the project was not explained, nor was there anyone from the art world around to explain Deller’s thinking.

There also wasn’t much said about the Bat Conservation Trust’s worthy work or the decline in bat numbers across the UK. Yet, the tour was cheap, accessible, and hopefully, has inspired some arty urban types to get out and go on a proper, biologist-led bat walk.

The London Wetland Centre’s Big Bat Walk is surely one of the best ways to see bats in the capital with seven species found on site, and groups like the London Bat Group and the Bat Conservation Trust organise year-round events that, weather permitting, will give people a proper introduction to British bats. There’s so much to learn about the 18 species of these acrobatic animals we have here in the UK.

Tom Ireland, Assistant Editor, The Biologist

Common Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), photo Phil Gould

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