A flicker of black on a dark summer’s night or common symbol seen around Halloween. Bats have been used to incite fear for many years. When in reality, most of the myths used to generate this fear are false and the state of bat populations in Canada should be what is scaring us.
White Nose Syndrome
We don’t have to look very far back in time to remember the days when bat populations in Canada were relatively secure. But in 2006, things started taking a turn for the worst with the introduction of White Nose Syndrome. It was first discovered in New York caves, when cavers noticed large amounts of dead and dying bats with a white fungus growing on their face. By 2010, the disease was being detected in eastern Canada. This fungus, Pseudogymnoasus destrutans or Pd, was found to affect bats primarily during hibernation. The origin of the fungus has not been confirmed, but some bat researchers believe it to be from Europe and Asia, as the fungus has also been found there, but impacting bat populations at a much lesser extent.
The white fuzz, found mostly around their nose and mouth, forces bats to become more active during hibernation due to the irritation it causes. This then results in an increase in metabolism, which burns their fat reserves at a much higher rate. When their reserves are then low, winter conditions still loom outside and odd behavior such as flying outdoors in winter has been reported as bats search for the insects, which are not present this time of year. Some studies have also shown that the fungus can impact the immune systems of bats, which can also contribute to mortality.
The fungus can spread rapidly between bat individuals, and infected hibernating groups typically see a 90- 100% death toll. In Canada, eastern provinces have been the hardest hit, such as Quebec and Ontario. But the disease is on the move, spreading 200-250 km per year. As of August 2019, the furthest west the fungus has been detected is in Manitoba, but at this rate it is predicted that all of Canada could be impacted by the disease in just 12 to 18 years.
An Impacted Species: The Little Brown Bat
The Little Brown Bat is commonly seen in warm night skies of Alberta, and they are remarkable creatures. Not only are they nocturnal, but bats are also the only mammal to achieve true flight. They are gregarious, meaning they prefer to live in groups, and commonly roost in buildings, caves, mines, old trees, crevices and bat houses. Although this species does not do a long distance migration, they can travel up to 100 km between their summer and winter roosting areas. They also play a critical role in our ecosystem and provide benefits to humans. Being an insectivore like all other Alberta bat species, a single Little Brown Bat can consume up to 1000 mosquitoes per hour. This helps to manage insect populations and provides natural pest control for humans.
Why should humans be concerned about this species? Well, it happens to be that White Nose Syndrome impacts this species, as well as the Northern Long-Eared and Tri-colored Bat, the hardest. Myotis species, such as the Little Brown Bat, in provinces such as in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec have seen a 94% decline in populations. As a result, the Government of Canada, under COSEWIC and SARA, has listed the Little Brown Bat as Endangered.
The focus now is on preventing the spread and curing bats the have been affected. Although no cure has been definitively proven to work, research is being done to find vaccines and evaluate the effectiveness of UV light . Luckily the disease cannot be transferred to humans, so it won’t affect human health directly.
In order to stop the spread, quite of number of preventative techniques are underway. Since spores for the fungus can easily be picked up by human clothing, some caves have been closed to prevent human access and potential introduction of the fungus to other caves. Additionally, several groups have established disinfection protocols for clothing and equipment to be used after they have entered a public access cave. Alberta Environment and Parks has developed guidelines to minimize the impact of wind energy development on bat populations. Informing the public about the disease, what to do if you see a diseased bat, and how to limit the human spread of spores have all been approaches used in Alberta.
On a national level, programs such as EduBat also aim to increase public education about the disease. Several of our national parks, such as Banff National Park, conduct bat monitoring to determine the status of these species and look out for White Nose Syndrome. On both the federal and provincial level, bats are considered with conducting environmental assessments and land-use screening.
Lend a Helping Hand
There are many ways in which you can get involved with helping species like the Little Brown Bat. Check out some of our suggestions below to get started!
Bat Boxes: These can be a great way to increase habitat for bats, by providing a place they can roost during the day when habitat features like snags (dead or dying trees) or rocky outcrops may be less common.
Build one: If you’re looking for a hands on project, this could be for you. We strongly recommend multi-cambered boxes and the use of plans that have already been deemed as safe and effective for roosting bats.
Install one: EALT sells pre-made and painted multi-cambered (4-chamber) bat boxes in our store. Bats are more likely to be found in areas where there is some natural vegetation and a water source, such as a creek or wetland. Installing a bat box in an area with these features will make it more likely to be used by bats. Install boxes on trees or posts according to requirements (e.g. height from the ground, direction, distance to water, etc.). Multi-chambered bat boxes can also be installed on barns or sheds, but do not install them on houses.
Monitor one: EALT has bat boxes at many of our conservation lands, many of which also have interpretive signage for you to learn more. Glory Hills, Hicks, Boisvert Greenwoods, Pipestone Creek, and most recently Larch Sanctuary, have bat boxes installed. Since bats hibernate in the winter, monitoring activities typically only take place in the spring and summer and is most effective between 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM.
Participate in Citizen Science. Whether you choose to monitor a bat box or you happen to discover a roost elsewhere, the information you supply can be incredibly helpful to bat conservation and research groups. You can report observations, of roosts or individuals, to the Alberta Community Bat Program. If you enjoy using technology, you can also use echo-locator devices, such as the Echo Touch 2. These plug into your smartphone or tablet and uses an app to convert echolocation calls into human audible sounds and can even use algorithms to approximate the bat species producing the call.
Be cautious of entering caves. Since these can be prime roosting areas for bats, learn above decontamination procedures if you enter a cave in which bats are present. This is a preventative measure to help reduce the chance of transferring White Nose Syndrome spores. If it is the winter time, try your best to not disturb hibernating bats. Waking them causes increase in metabolism which can reduce their fat storage more rapidly.
Limit the use of pesticides and insecticides. These transfer to the insects that the bats may eat. As they eat a lot of them, these chemicals then bio-accumulate in bats and can cause them harm.
Little Brown Bat. (2013). Retrieved from Hinterland Who's Who: http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/mammals/little-brown-bat.html
Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), the Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and the Tri-colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus): recovery strategy 2018. (2018, December 21). Retrieved from Government of Canada- : https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/recovery-strategies/little-brown-myotis-2018.html#toc9
Palmer, J. M., Drees, K. P., Foster, J. T., & Lindner, D. L. (2018). Extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet light in the fungal pathogen causing white-nose syndrome of bats. Retrieved from USDA: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/55557
Project EduBat. (2019). Retrieved from Bats Live: https://batslive.pwnet.org/edubat/index.php
Species Profile- Little Brown Myotis. (2011, November 19). Retrieved from Government of Canada- Species at Risk Registry: https://wildlife-species.canada.ca/species-risk-registry/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=1173
Static Spread Map. (2019, August 30). Retrieved from White Nose Sydrome.org: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/static-spread-map/august-30-2019
Vaccination May Help Protect Bats from Deadly Disease. (2019, May 1). Retrieved from USGS: https://www.usgs.gov/news/vaccination-may-help-protect-bats-deadly-disease
What is White Nose Syndrome? . (2019, October). Retrieved from White Nose Syndrome.org: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/static-page/what-is-white-nose-syndrome
What Is White-nose Syndrome? (2017, December 8). Retrieved from National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/articles/what-is-white-nose-syndrome.htm
White Nose Syndrome . (2019). Retrieved from Government of Alberta: https://www.alberta.ca/white-nose-syndrome.aspx