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The decrease in population of a rare bat species in the UK has been connected to the cutting down of trees to build ships for the British empire’s naval fleets.

There are numerous instances of plant and animal species becoming extinct due to human actions in the last 50 years. However, studies have revealed that the decline of a unique bat species actually began in the UK 500 years ago when its habitat was destroyed for shipbuilding.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) have determined that the population of western barbastelle bats in Britain has decreased by 99% due to deforestation during the early stages of British imperialism.

The conclusion was made possible by analysis of bat DNA that can pinpoint a “signature” of the past, including periods when populations declined, leading to more inbreeding and less genetic diversity.

Dr Orly Razgour, a molecular ecologist and conservation biologist at the university, said: “These bats usually roost in mature oak and beech trees, and move around every few nights – so they benefit from areas with substantial woodland cover.

“Our research indicates that the populations of northern and southern British regions have experienced a decrease over the course of several centuries, starting approximately 500 years ago. This decline aligns with a time when trees were extensively cut down to provide wood for building colonial ships. It is probable that this decline was caused by the depletion of woodland, which has persisted since then.”

The unique characteristics of the western barbastelle bat consist of its sizable ears that connect in the center, a flattened face with a pug-like nose, and dark velvety fur with white tips. It has a size of 4-5cm and a wingspan of approximately 26cm. In early summer, female bats give birth and nurture one pup per year.

The study involved the humane capture and testing of western barbastelle bats in 15 forests located in Britain, Spain, and Portugal.

According to Dr. Katherine Boughey, the leader of science and monitoring at BCT, this method is revolutionary for preserving bats. Previously, we could only analyze recent changes in bat populations, but there are reports that bat populations in the UK are currently at their lowest levels. With this technique, we now have proof of the past decrease in barbastelle bats, but it is crucial to obtain similar evidence for other bat species.

According to the BCT, the “extremely uncommon” species can only be found in a handful of locations in southern and central England and Wales.

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The research results are detailed in a publication of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Source: theguardian.com