Post provided by Natalie Yoh

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are posting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Natalie Yoh discusses their bat conservation research under the flag theme of ‘Nature’.

About Natalie

Hi, my name is Natalie but most people call me Tally. I’m originally from Manchester in the UK and I’m in the third year of my PhD studying bat conservation. I first became fascinated with bats at Chester Zoo’s Fruit Bat Forest on a school trip where I fell in love with the small Seba’s short-tailed bat (Carollia perspicillata). Fourteen years later, I got to study them in their native forests in Mexico and have since been fortunate enough to work with bats across the world. My partner, who is originally from Indiana, is also doing her PhD on bats based in Norway. When not batting, we both love running, bouldering, eating, and arguing over whether they are called chips or crisps. 

Natalie’s Research

Trefoil Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus trifoliatus). Credit: Natalie Yoh.

Whilst I originally started out with fruit bats, now I’m focused on insectivorous bats. Most bats feed on insects and to do this they produce ultrasonic calls (known as echolocation calls), which allow them to detect prey. In the UK, we have 18 species of bat and we can monitor their calls using automated recognition systems. These identify which species or family/genus (many bats which have similar foraging styles have similar calls) a call belongs to. This allows us to easily monitor how a species’ activity in an area is changing over time, especially in relation to stressors such as deforestation. However, in the tropics, the diversity of bats is much, much higher and often our knowledge about them is more limited. At the same time, there are much higher rates of forest loss as it is being converted for livestock pasture or plantations. Without knowing how these bat species are affected, we don’t know how best to conserve them.

Bats make up around 40% of Borneo’s mammal species and many are affected by forest loss for logging, rubber, or oil palm plantations. Therefore, part of my PhD research is to design a semi-automated way to monitor these species’ calls. This will help inform practitioners about which forest traits are best at conserving bats in these landscapes. For example, oil palm companies are legally obligated to preserve strips of forest surrounding rivers (known as riparian buffers). We identified that the forest quality (e.g. the height of the canopy) was more important for Horseshoe bats than the width of these buffers. In this way, my research aims to inform evidence-based conservation practice in Borneo.

Fieldwork is an integral part of nature conservation research: what does this mean for LGBTQ+ researchers?

I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled to a number of amazing countries for fieldwork. These opportunities have been so formative, both professionally and personally, as I gained a better appreciation of in-country conservation challenges, experienced a diversity of cultures, and met so many inspiring people. However, there was an undercurrent of apprehension during many of these trips.

For example, my research is based in a country where my relationship would be punishable by up to 20 years in prison as well as corporal punishment. There are additional laws relating to gender expression which also carry prison sentences and mandatory ‘counselling’. It is important universities acknowledge the real threats LGBTQ+ researchers face on top of all the usual challenges faced in the fieldwork. 

Field site. Credit: Natalie Yoh.

I’m lucky to have felt very supported by my supervisors but there is a lack of university-level safeguarding protocols for LGBTQ+ researchers, and not just in conservation. The current responsibility is placed on the researcher to not disclose their sexuality or gender identity to minimise the risk. But does this extend to removing LGBTQ+ related material from social media sites? If you are married to a same-sex partner, does this mean not disclosing your marital status? Does this mean there is an expectation you will change your gender expression? What information should a researcher include on their risk assessment and how do they approach their supervisor with these sensitive concerns in the first place?

For fieldwork to be effective, students and early career researchers need to feel safe and supported. Therefore, there needs to be clear guidelines to ensure LGBTQ+ researchers have effective risk assessments and know what structures are in place to support them should they come into legal difficulties. This should become a standard part of the risk assessment process, not something the researcher has to bring to the university’s attention. This alone would go a long way to better support LGBTQ+ field researchers.

I love fieldwork and I hope that I will have many more opportunities to do more in the future. Most importantly when I do, I want to know that my colleagues and I are safe supported. For more resources about support and safety in the field, please check out the Women in Conservation Canterbury Network’s Fieldwork Safety Box and the Pride Field Network.   

Credit: Natalie Yoh.

Find out more about Natalie’s research by visiting their ResearchGate, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

Interested in contributing a post for the Rainbow Research Pride series? Find out more information here.