Many smartphone applications are designed more for fun than substance (Angry Birds, anyone?), but a new app from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Bat Conservation Trust offers individuals and communities a chance to get involved in citizen science in a very real way and to help conserve bat populations in the process.

The app is called iBats, named after the Indicator Bats Program, which got its start in Transylvania in 2006. "Where else would you start a global bat monitoring program?" says ZSL senior research fellow and iBats program manager Kate Jones.

For the past five years, iBats volunteers in 16 countries have been collecting recordings of bats' ultrasonic echo-location calls, which are used to find and locate objects. The recordings are uploaded into a central database where the calls can be identified by species by program coordinators. Each species has a "somewhat distinctive" call, says Jones, who adds that the point of the project is to "build up a kind of heart monitor for the environment using bats as an indicator of change."

Identifying bats through their calls is not easy or foolproof, but the iBats team has been building techniques to allow computers to automatically extract and identify calls by species. "We're almost to the point where we have an identification algorithm for all of Europe," says Jones. This will allow the team to fully analyze the accumulated data from the past five years and then compare it to future results. The team could have waited to start collecting data until they had algorithms in place, but then they would have lost out on half a decade of data. "If we didn't collect data in 2006, we could never go back to 2006," to see what bats were doing that year, she says.

The identification tools will help the team assist in quantifying the health of local bat populations. "We haven't been able to answer what's happening to bat species because we haven't had the data yet, but with this tool we'll be able to do that," says Jones.

Until the launch of the iBats app last month, volunteers needed to carry (or mount to their cars) three pieces of heavy equipment: an ultrasonic bat detector, a recording device and a GPS device. The app makes things much simpler. All you need now is a smartphone and an ultrasonic microphone.

The microphones aren't inexpensive (this one costs $249) , but Jones encourages communities to chip in together rather than having individuals carry the burden. "I want it to be a community project so people can be empowered about their local environment," she says.

Although iBats has not yet taken off in the U.S., it has more than 700 active volunteers in the UK, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia and Japan, as well as pilot programs in other countries. "British people are nuts about counting things," Jones says. "They will monitor slugs if you ask them to. There's a huge interest here in natural activism, in the normal, everyday person going out and doing something."

As iBats grows, "each regional area needs a whole new identification tool," Jones says, "and each tool is only as good as the data which goes into it." The program managers have also created a database called EchoBank, which will store bat calls. "It goes online soon, and then anyone can go in and download calls and build their own identification network."

The iBats app, free for Apple and Android phones, had 3,000 downloads the day it was released. Despite the novelty of the first-day release, the microphones are still a "barrier to inclusion," says Jones. "We need funding to bring the cost of those microphones down. People don't realize that it's a community project and a long-term involvement. Apps have a reputation of being fun, and this is more of a tool for monitoring. This is the very beginning state of a huge project."

Photo: iBats app logo, courtesy of Zoological Society of London