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Home arrow Environment arrow Bats in the Anthropocene: Conservation of Bats in a Changing World

Bats and Roads

John Altringham and Gerald Kerth

Abstract The effects of roads on bats have been largely neglected until recently, despite growing evidence for profound effects on other wildlife. Roads destroy, fragment and degrade habitat, are sources of light, noise and chemical pollution and can kill directly through collision with traffic. The negative effects of roads on wildlife cannot be refuted but at the same time road building and upgrading are seen as important economic drivers. As a consequence, infrastructure projects and protection of bats are often in conflict with each other. There is now growing evidence that fragmentation caused by roads reduces access to important habitat, leading to lower reproductive output in bats. This barrier effect is associated with reduced foraging activity and species diversity in proximity to motorways and other major roads. The effects of light and noise pollution may add to this effect in the immediate vicinity of roads and also make bats even more reluctant to approach and cross roads. Several studies show that vehicles kill a wide range of bat species and in some situations roadkill may be high enough to lead directly to population decline. Current mitigation efforts against these effects are often ineffective, or remain largely untested. The limited information available suggests that underpasses to take bats under roads may be the most effective means of increasing the safety and permeability of roads. However, underpass design needs further study and alternative methods need to be developed and assessed.


The global road network gets longer, wider, faster and more complex as existing road systems are upgraded and new roads are built. Despite the widely acknowledged need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel and growing concerns about the environmental impact of roads, improved communication by road, and even the act of road-building itself, are often seen as essential economic drivers. As road networks expand, traffic volumes increase and congestion remains a problem. A few statistics highlight the pervasive nature of our road networks: only 2 % of Germany is made up of landscape fragments greater than 100 km2 (Jaeger et al. 2007) and only 17 % of the US landscape is more than 1 km from a road (Riiters and Wickham 2003). In 2012, the UK had 395,000 km of roads, of which over 50,000 km are major roads and 3700 km motorways (Defra 2013). Major roads account for only 13 % of all UK roads, but carry 65 % of the traffic. 50 % of all traffic is on motorways and other major roads in rural areas. Almost 20 % of major road length is dual carriageway. Over 3200 km have been added to the UK network in the last decade and many more have been upgraded.

Roads have several negative impacts on animals. First, building roads and their ancillary structures destroys habitat directly. Secondly, the resulting road network fragments the landscape, potentially restricting animal movements, thereby blocking their access to the remaining habitat. Thirdly, roads are also sources of light, noise and chemical pollution, and so degrade the habitat around them. Moreover, the increased human access provided by roads usually accelerates urban, commercial and agricultural development and increases human disturbance in many ways, e.g. through increased recreational pressure and the introduction of non-native predators and other invasive species. Finally, fast moving traffic kills animals directly. Broad reviews of the effects of roads on vertebrates include Bennett (1991), Forman and Alexander (1998), Trombulak and Frissell (2000), Coffin (2007), Fahrig and Rytwinski (2009), Laurance et al. (2009), Benítez-Lόpez et al. (2010), and Rytwinski and Fahrig (2012). Surprisingly, despite the many ways in which roads can impact on wildlife, it is only in the last 20 years that significant attention has been given to what is now often referred to as 'road ecology' (Forman et al. 2003). Little of this attention was directed at bats. Moreover, the few existing studies on the impact of roads on bats have all been carried out in North America and Europe.

Globally many bat species are endangered (Racey and Entwistle 2003; Jones et al. 2009), including regions with a dense infrastructure such as North America and Europe (Safi and Kerth 2004). As a consequence, in Europe, for example, bats are of high priority for conservation and all bat species have been strictly protected for two decades by European law (CMS 1994). Despite the importance of bats in conservation, rigorous, peer-reviewed studies on the impact of roads on bats have only begun to be published in the last few years. Only over the last decade it has been widely accepted that roads must have an effect on bats. As a result, mitigation against these effects is becoming increasingly integrated in the road building process and practical mitigation guidelines have been published in a number of countries (e.g. Highways Agency 2001, 2006; Limpens et al. 2005). However, the precise nature and scale of the effects of roads on bats were mostly unknown, and as a consequence mitigation has often been poorly monitored and therefore rarely informed by sound evidence (Altringham 2008; O'Connor et al. 2011).

This review describes the ways in which roads do or may affect bats, discusses the available evidence in relation to each, and where appropriate suggests action for the future, in terms of both research and conservation action. Because work on the impacts of roads on bats is still scarce and biased towards the temperate zone, some work on other animals will be discussed, in particular birds, to help fill important gaps. Roads can affect bats in many ways, and because the mitigation solutions will to some extent be unique to each, the mechanisms will be discussed separately. However, there is considerable interaction between them and the impacts in many cases are cumulative, so some topics will appear under more than one heading.

To our knowledge almost no studies have been published yet that investigated the effects of railways on bats (but see Vandevelde et al. 2014). However, as linear development features, they have the potential to disrupt bats and will be discussed briefly at the end of the review.

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