The Isle of Wight 'Bat Professor'

Dr Jon Whitehurst
Dr Jon Whitehurst is a Chief Engineer in our Naval Ships team. A highly regarded expert in his field, he is responsible for both the equipment, systems architecting and systems integration to enable our Royal Navy customer to ‘fight their ship’ to the required effect.
Jon is also highly regarded in the bat world. His engineering doctorate coupled with his fascination for bats has lead him to achieve incredible national change and understanding in bat ecology. He tells us more about his journey.
 
The Isle of Wight ‘Bat Professor’ My relationship with bats started back in my PhD era, through a curiosity in my PhD supervisor’s fascination with recording Common Pipstrelle echolocation calls - that’s how bats find their way in total darkness. This was at a time when audio recorders were the size of a suitcase and you had to make your own microphones from scratch in the lab.
 
It had nothing to do with my PhD in microwave engineering, but it taught me all about “pulse compression” and how bats could resolve to sub millimetre resolution from these echolocation calls - capable of doing this identification to millimetre accuracy, to identify the location of objects in darkness. Pulse compression would feature again in later life as a radar system engineer of course … this was just the first cross-over between my professional engineering career and bats.
 
When we moved to the Isle of Wight in the late 80’s, my wife became a volunteer at the Isle of Wight Bat Hospital and a bat rescue paramedic, and we have stayed friends with the Isle of Wight Bat Hospital ever since, helping out when we can.
 
Things would have stayed that way, just helping with fundraising and rescuing stranded bats, but fate would change all that following a random conversation at one of the national bat conferences that led to the journey I’ve been on. The random conversation was about a subject called habitat suitability modelling, or HSM with a professor from Leeds University, who also was an Engineer. Our discussion was about how to link the masses of field observations across a very large area, the Yorkshire Dales National Park in his case, to the habitat features within it.
My relationship with bats started back in my PhD era, through a curiosity in my PhD supervisor’s fascination with recording Common Pipstrelle echolocation calls - that’s how bats find their way in total darkness.

Dr Jon Whitehurst, Combat Systems Chief Engineer

Aside from the mathematical interest, the conversation made me think about the empirical observations that I and other amateurs were making, and how these could be linked up in a statistical model to measure and predict habitat suitability. Fired-up, I could think of nothing else on the way home - how we could move all this forward and combine the maths with the field work?
 
It would take nearly a year to come up with a viable science-based solution, following another chance conversation with some students at the University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland, at another bat conference. This led to a long term technical exchange and trials work on a revolutionary ultrasound logging system and echolocation call based species identification system, then a winter holiday in Cyprus poring over statistical modelling methods by the pool, which culminated in the eureka moment of how to formulate a viable model.
 
I then spent three years, walking 562km in the process, collecting bat presence data in the Parkhurst Forest using an experimental piece of recording kit and then refining and tuning the statistical modelling method. Along the way I would give papers and workshop sessions at a national level on how to deploy what was a whole new way of thinking in the way that bats’ use of habitat could be determined in a statistically meaningful way. The method has since been taken refined and improved and has now developed into an accepted and respected set of survey protocols and modelling methodology.
 
The work done in 2012-2014 seems an age ago now, but it was a real catalyst for change in turning bat ecology from a qualitative and opinion-based area into a truly quantitative and measurable science, and was recognised as a significant evolution in the way wind turbines located in forested areas needed to be assessed. This was further recognised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England who awarded me the Merlin Award for my work in 2015.
 
Subsequently, together with other volunteers from the Isle of Wight Bat Group, we have surveyed and produced habitat suitability models for every native bat species on the Isle of Wight.
 
The work still goes on; I recently published a paper on the impact of tree harvesting on bat habitat use, working closely with Forestry Commission England. Today I do more outreach talks and walks and I'm always looking to improve the general public’s perception of these amazing mammals that are so often vilified.
 
Overall, the key opportunity has been to bring my engineering and mathematical expertise into an adjacent scientific area, and turn around an imprecise and opinion-based area into one where you can make quantitative and statically justifiable assertions….and you have to marvel at the bat’s ability in terms of its evolution of aerodynamics, sonar and navigation capabilities!