I’ve been a little bit bat crazy ever since reading the Silverwing series as a kid. But more recently my bat love has turned from reading about them to working with real live bats! Last week I had the opportunity to help with mist netting project for bats in Ontario. I’ve assisted with mist netting in Costa Rica and really fell in love with bats while I was there. What I took away from my experience in Costa Rica was that the bats of North America, particularly Eastern North America, are in trouble! I learned a little bit about white nose fungus, which can be a fatal problem for bats and is currently spreading into and across Canada.
Most people don’t realize how large of a role bats play in our ecosystem. They are responsible for seed dispersal, pollination, and some serious insect control. Like, 1,000 mosquitoes per hour insect control! Even as someone who loves animals I can appreciate a hatred of mosquitoes. Bats also pollinate agave plants, which are used to make tequila. So when you think about bats, think about drinking tequila outside while not being bitten by mosquitoes. Just picture that for a moment…Now hopefully you’re on board with saving the bats! Which we’ll come back to in a moment.
Outside of a known roosting site, a church in Southern Ontario, we set up some large mist nets (mist nets look like volleyball nets, but are made with very fine mesh the bats have a difficult time detecting). This was luxury mist netting, in Costa Rica we set up our nets across paths in the jungle! We counted over 200 bats flying out of the roost and caught 38 of them. The studies I assisted with in Costa Rica were purely population dynamics: identify, record gender and species and let them go. This was a little more invasive. We held the bats until they were processed and then released them.
Processing involved weighing, measuring the wing, banding with an individual ID tag, checking for scarring on the wing (evidence of white nose fungus), taking a small sample of tissue from the wing for DNA analysis (surprisingly this did not seem to disturb the bats based on their lack of reaction), and taking a small hair sample for molecular analysis of metals.
The primary purpose here was to monitor for white nose fungus. This fungus was first recorded outside of New York in 2007 and has since spread up to 2,000 km away, infecting bats in many Eastern states and provinces. As of 2013 the fungus has been confirmed in bat populations as far West as central Ontario in Canada and Western Missouri in the US.
This fungus causes bats to behave strangely, coming out of hibernation in the winter which results in excess energy being used and an inability to survive the winter. Approximately 50% of little brown bats in an affected colony will die over the winter in an affected colony. 90-100% of bats in some regions have died. In Southern New Brunswick, an area boasting a population of 7,000 bats in 2011, the estimated population is 22 bats in 2014. That is not a typo. Twenty two bats!
Stopping, or at least slowing, the spread of this fungus is extremely important. Bats are important everywhere, but our Westernmost province has the most to lose. With 16 species of bats (including 8 endemic species) found in British Columbia, half of which are either red or blue listed, BC would be hit hard by this fungus.
Cavers are very important in helping to stop the spread of this fungus! If you enter a cave, after ensuring it is safe and not closed due to conservation reasons, always wash everything you were wearing/using before entering another cave. Humans moving between roosting sites, mostly while caving, have been the main factor in spreading this fungus. You can report any strange behaviour in bats (ie. flying around in the middle of the winter) to the local natural resource agency, build a bat box to provide a roosting site for bats (plans can be found online), and not disturb hibernating bats. See other suggestions on how you can help bats here: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/what-can-you-do-help
There are many myths out there about bats, but once you get past all of the bad media they are amazing creatures and very necessary for our ecosystem to thrive and survive! We need these little creatures to stick around, so try your best to love the bats. When in doubt, think of the tequila.