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A deadly disease with no cure is ravaging bats, driving them to the brink of extinction.
With White-nose syndrome spreading to Manitoba from northwestern Ontario, lab researchers want to stop it at the border before it spreads farther west.
In Ontario and Manitoba, the campaign to save the furry mice-like creatures with leathery wings is online through the University of Winnipeg Foundation and the Willis Bat Lab. Until now, Neighbourhood Bat Watch has covered eastern Canada and northwestern Ontario.
The goal is to appeal to people to look for the tiny night-fliers in backyards, cottages and in remote and rural areas.
The results will help researchers chart a map of bats in Canada, the first in the country.
It will also take further action from people to save bats, so the campaign hopes to get local people to put up bat houses to nurture healthy colonies, and heated bat houses, such as infirmaries, to give infected bats a chance at recovery.
In Canada, Neighbourhood Bat Watch started in Quebec, and University of Winnipeg researcher Quinn Fletcher brought Ontario and Manitoba on board.
The Free Press sat down with Fletcher, and colleague Bat Watch co-ordinator Kaleigh Norquay after a field trip near Grand Rapids, the Water Cook Ecological Reserve. The area is known for bat colonies, otherwise called hibernacula.
Free Press: We're talking about bats, an animal that doesn't get a lot of love.
Norquay: I find lately the tide has been turning. Most people I talk to about bats are really excited, so I hope that lots of people do love bats.
FP: Have you seen the hashtags on Twitter that describe you and your field team's work this summer?
Norquay: Oh, "distractingly sexy?" Yes. Absolutely, and when we put on our big white Tyvek suits and our blue gloves and we're handling animals, I can imagine... For the bats, they're just distracted.
FP: Seriously, what's the problem and how bad is it?
Norquay: Bats are really suffering from a disease called White-nose syndrome, and it is a fungus that grows on bats as they're hibernating. It causes them to come out of hibernation too often. Instead of being nice and cold all winter, they're warming up every two or three days, and they're burning through all their fat reserves. They're dying by the millions. It's the fastest mammalian die-off on record.
FP: The working theory is that a caver, possibly from France, brought the fungi over on his boots to North America, inadvertently depositing the disease in bat caves in New York. That was in 2006. Where is it now?
Norquay: It's quickly spreading west, just being found in Thunder Bay this past winter. In the caves, it's up to 99 per cent mortality where it's found. The first cave it was found in was called Howes Cave in New York. Researchers would normally go in every year, see hundreds of thousands of bats on the walls, take pictures of all of them and then some poor undergraduate would count them. But one year, (2006) they went in and instead of hundreds of thousands of bats on the wall, there were piles of them on the floor dead.
FP: You've been tracking bats across northwestern Ontario and Manitoba. Is there any indication White-nose is here yet?
Norquay: We've been visiting groups of colonies where female bats raise their pups together, visiting people's cabins and all the bats seem really healthy across Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. I was just in Thunder Bay... We know some caves there have tested positive for White-nose. It's not in Manitoba but it is on its way. It will come here. The disease seems to move about 200 to 300 kilometres a year. Bats seems to regularly move between cave sites, three to five per cent of them, but it doesn't take much for this fungus to move. It takes one bat moving 500 kilometres to infect a new cave.
FP: Bats matter because they consume night flying insects, the kind that are pests to agriculture and forestry operations. And nuisance insects. So what are you doing about it all?
Fletcher: We're starting to monitor them. We're setting up the Neighbourhood Bat Watch, which is in partnership with the Quebec government. People in government there and researchers have set up a website to report maternity colonies on their properties...
FP: Like the summertime bat nurseries that Norquay and her field team visit?
Fletcher: Yes. So we can have a better indication of the number of bats and how White-nose is affecting these maternity colonies. There's a bunch of information on the website about the disease, about bats. We're trying to create a map that covers bat locations across a large portion of Canada, just to know where they are.
FP: So how would anyone know they have a bat nursery near them?
Norquay: If they're actually in your house or cabin, you might hear the squeaking and them moving around. If they're in a boathouse, you might just see the droppings on the side of the boathouse. A lot of people contact us because they want a bat colony and they want a bat house. Bats are a great way to control insects in your yard. People are really excited about that.
FP: A bat house is the size of a bathroom medicine cabinet. The door is a wall and three chambers inside allow bats (100 or so) a place to hang for hibernation. A warming box is a heated insulated bat house, to normal human body temperature.
Norquay: Yes, one of the things we're trying is a heated bat house. When bats come out in the springtime, the weather is variable, and when it's really cold, these bats, who are trying to maintain a pregnancy and raise pups, use a lot of energy to stay warm. When bats have White-nose syndrome, they may not have that energy to maintain a pregnancy. They also need to recover.
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FP: So you're talking about setting up infirmaries for pregnant bats?
Fletcher: If they're infected with White-nose in the winter, they might be able to survive, and these are the individuals we're trying to help reproduce. It's possible these individuals have some sort of characteristics that allow them to be resistant to the disease. These are the ones we want to help so they can reproduce.
Learning about bats
A new campaign to save bats from dying out is giving scientists rare in-depth data:
The typical lifespan is about 20 years. The record for a Little Brown bat was close to 40 years.
Bats give birth to a single pup a year, and in many ways the bat's life cycle looks a lot like mammals many times their size, such as deer or bears.
Besides, say Quinn Fletcher and Kaleigh Norquay with the University of Winnipeg's Willis Bat Lab, bats are fascinating.
"It's exciting to work with an animal so many people know so little about. We're making new discoveries all the time, about their behaviour, their ecology," Norquay said.
"Anybody who's been up close and personal with a bat can really see how much personality they have, how beautiful they really are," she said.
"I study the physiology of free-ranging animals and bats do some interesting things. They can survive all winter, drop their temperature and hibernate. They're really long lived, which is surprising for a mammal their size. They can change their body temperature in the summer, to save their energy. They have all these interesting energy-saving mechanisms," Fletcher said.
Manitoba listed Little Brown bats and the northern long-eared bat as endangered this year.