USFWS/Ann Froschauer via Flickr Creative Commons // Public Domain
USFWS/Ann Froschauer via Flickr Creative Commons // Public Domain

Little Bats Reach Speeds of Up to 100 MPH

USFWS/Ann Froschauer via Flickr Creative Commons // Public Domain
USFWS/Ann Froschauer via Flickr Creative Commons // Public Domain

If you’ve ever watched a bat in flight, you’ve likely come to two conclusions: first, that bats are adorable*, and second, that boy, does that look like a lot of work. Scientists have long believed bats’ flying style to be inefficient, but a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science shows that all that flapping could be working in their favor.

Very little about a bat appears optimized for flight. In addition to their flap-happy flying technique, their massive ears and protruding features create real drag up in the air. Compared to birds, bats spend relatively little time in the air, and so it was assumed that speed and efficient flight were less important than other skills and traits.

But this is truer of some bats than others. From a distance, a Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis, also known as the Mexican free-tailed bat) in midair looks a lot like a bird, with similarly shaped wings and flight patterns. The free-tailed bat is a delicate little critter, maxing out at around 0.5 ounces, with a wingspan of up to 14 inches. Known as speedy fliers, they make their homes in caves and under bridges throughout the western U.S. and down through Central and South America.

To find out just how fast these little bats could go, researchers at the University of Tennessee designed a very unusual experiment that lasted seven nights. Every evening, one scientist boarded an airplane headed toward well-known bat hideout Frio Cave, located about 80 miles west of San Antonio, Texas, while another waited at the mouth of the cave with a handheld net. As the bats emerged to hunt, the researcher by the cave netted a female bat, glued a lightweight radio transmitter to her back, and set her free. The researcher aboard the plane tracked the bats’ movements in real time.

And gosh, those bats were moving. Individual bats reached ground speeds of up to 100 miles an hour in little bursts—faster than any other bird, let alone bat, ever recorded. 

Contrary to expectations, they also negotiated wind currents the same way birds do—increasing their speed into a head wind and easing up when the wind was at their backs.

“Our results suggest that flight performance in bats has been underappreciated,” the authors write modestly, “and that functional differences in the flight abilities of birds and bats require re-evaluation.”

*Disagree? Just look at these faces

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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