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Bats may have a bad reputation, but it’s not deserved. And now they’re depending on your help to survive.
Scientists and researchers across Atlantic Canada are teaming up to monitor and protect the at-risk animals. Three species found here on the East Coast - including the little brown myotis, the northern myotis and the tri-coloured bat - are now federally listed as endangered.
White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungal bat disease that originated in Europe, has been documented in the region for over a decade and has caused a dramatic decline in these beneficial animals.
“Bats in Atlantic Canada affected by White Nose Syndrome are currently still extremely low in numbers due to the disease,” says Lori Phinney.
Phinney is a wildlife researcher with the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, a non-profit specializing in environmental research, monitoring and education in Queens County, N.S. In the first two years after the disease was detected in Atlantic Canada in 2011, she says researchers saw a 90 per cent decline in winter colony bat populations in the region. The bat population still has not recovered.
“Bats are slow to reproduce. Many species in this region only produce one pup per year, so potential recovery of populations to a healthy state will take time,” she says.
It might be time the species doesn’t have. Summer bat populations are still low in southwest Nova Scotia and researchers across Atlantic Canada are still reporting relatively low numbers, added Phinney.
WNS is a disease caused by a cold-resistant fungus native to Europe, called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which bat biologists call “Pd” for short. How that fungus came to the East Coast, though, is still a mystery.
“The most likely explanation is that it was accidentally introduced to a show cave in upper New York State by a tourist visiting from Europe,” says Tessa McBurney, an Atlantic Bat Conservation Project technician for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC), Atlantic region, based in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
In a 2012 study, it was estimated that at least 5.7 to 6.7 million bats had died from WNS in North America since its introduction in 2006.
“That number is likely much higher now, but total loss is difficult to quantify,” she adds. “Bats are notoriously difficult to monitor. They are nocturnal, they produce sounds that we are unable to hear, and they roost in very small spaces that are difficult to access.”
Pd causes death by starvation and dehydration when bats wake too frequently from hibernation.
“Research has shown the disease causes physiological and energetic imbalances that ultimately leads to death. Hibernating bats infected with the fungus wake up more frequently than they naturally would, depleting fat reserves before winter is over and eventually causing them to die of starvation and dehydration,” Phinney says. “However, there is research showing if bats enter hibernation with higher fat stores, they may be more likely to survive throughout the winter.”
In provinces where WNS was first detected seven years ago, there are still bats dying from this disease every winter.
“WNS was only confirmed on the island of Newfoundland in the spring of 2017, so it is crucial that bat populations be closely monitored for spread of the disease across the province,” McBurney said.
But there’s some hope, she adds.
“WNS has not yet been confirmed in Labrador.”
WNS is not the only threat faced by the seven bat species found in Atlantic Canada. Habitat loss from deforestation and hibernation site disturbance, wind farms, pesticides and heavy metals, outdoor cats and simply an undeserved bad reputation all impact the population, says McBurney.
It’s that reputation that leads some people to fear them, but we should actually want bats to stick around, she says.
“All of the bats found in Atlantic Canada are insectivorous (insect-eating) bat species. They not only eat the nuisance insects that irritate us, like mosquitoes, but they also eat a large number of agricultural crop pests,” McBurney says.
The ecological services of bats are estimated to be valued at somewhere between $3.7 and $53.0 billion for the U.S. agricultural industry each year. Although estimates are not available for the Canadian agricultural sector, it’s likely a similar value.
“Fewer crop pests may also result in reduced pesticide use, which is a huge benefit for many organisms within the environment, and also for the people who are eating the produce,” said McBurney.
So why do they have the bad rap?
“People are often scared of bats because they grow up hearing misconceptions, which is perfectly understandable,” McBurney says.
“If you are scared of bats, I would recommend trying to learn a little more about them, because it is always easier to be scared of things we are not familiar with. Bats are actually incredibly social, caring, and fascinating animals.”
Regional effort underway
All four Atlantic Canada provinces are now participating in bat monitoring projects, with non-profits, academia, government and citizen scientists in the region all coming together to protect bats, says Phinney.
The Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI) and Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site (Parks Canada) hosted the second regional bat meeting of its kind last spring to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration of ongoing bat research and monitoring in the four East Coast provinces.
The provincial governments have also provided support for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC), Atlantic Region’s most recent bat project. McBurney says the project is a multi-faceted effort to protect regional bat populations – but it’s dependent on citizen scientists for success.
“The citizen science component provides valuable information that assists wildlife managers and bat health experts to conserve and recover bat populations in the Atlantic provinces. We also work directly with members of the public and pest control operators to mitigate mortality events associated with bats residing in buildings,” she says.
There are also efforts to expand bat monitoring in all four East Coast provinces to better determine the status of bat populations and find ways to better support their recovery.
How to help
Citizens can help bats by providing habitat and reporting sightings to monitoring agencies, but small things can be done on your own property as well, says McBurney.
“Bat houses provide bats with a safe space to roost. This is especially important if a colony has been removed from their current maternity roost, like a building, as they will need to find a new home,” she says.
If bats already have a maternity roost site, they won't necessarily move to a new spot (like a bat house).
“Bats are incredibly loyal to their maternity roosts, and the females return to the same site every summer to give birth to their pups,” she adds. “With local bat species being able to live for over 30 years, they can spend a long time at one maternity roost.”
Outside of Newfoundland, there aren’t a large number of bats looking for new summer roost sites, but people are encouraged to put bat houses up anyway.
“Then, if numbers begin to improve, the bats will have a safe roost. The longer a bat house is in place, the greater the likelihood that bats will find it and use it,” said McBurney.
An alternative to using bat houses to promote bat conservation is to provide bats with natural habitat. This includes keeping large, old trees on your property, creating a bat-friendly garden, and reducing the use of artificial lighting, McBurney says. Additional information is available on the CWHC website in the Bats in Buildings guides for Atlantic Canada.
Citizens can also report bat sightings and get involved in monitoring efforts. In Nova Scotia, one option is the Nova Scotia reporting hotline 1-866-727-3447 and website www.batconservation.ca, managed by the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute and the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry. Both are working together with the regional CWHC to collect sightings.
The public can also get involved in monitoring efforts by connecting with local organizations studying bats, adds Phinney.
“For example, the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute is currently working with landowners across southwest Nova Scotia to monitor maternity colonies. We have observed surviving colonies in barns, bat boxes, attics and a surprising number of individual bats in patio umbrellas,” said Phinney.
To report sighting of bats in PEI, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and NS, members of the public can call the CWHC at 1-833-434-BATS (2287). Callers will receive up-to-date and accurate information about bat-related topics, including general bat biology and ecology, bats and human health, bats in buildings, and bat conservation.
What you need to know about reporting or managing bats in Atlantic Canada
- CWHC accepts all bat sightings: dead or alive, single bat or multiple bats, any time of year. We also answer bat-related questions, no bat sighting necessary.
- CWHC collects dead bats for necropsy (animal autopsy) and testing. Do not touch the bat with your bare hands; wearing gloves, bag the bat and keep it in a cool place out of reach of people/pets until you contact the CWHC hotline at 1-833-434-BATS (2287).
- If an individual would like to have bats removed from a building, we will work with the caller to find the best solution for both the building owner and the bats. Human health is always our top priority, but we also try to prevent unnecessary bat mortality.
- Do not ever handle bats directly. Especially in August and September, you may see bats roosting temporarily on the sides of buildings as they move from their summer to winter roost sites. Leave the bats alone; do not touch them with your bare hands.
- If you do find a grounded, sick, or injured bat, do not attempt to rehabilitate the bat on your own. Grounded bats may be more likely to be sick, although it depends on the time of year; it is fairly common to find grounded bats in August, when the pups are learning to fly. Unfortunately, sometimes bats end up having to be euthanized and submitted for rabies testing to protect the health of well-meaning people who handled the bats incorrectly. It is great that people want to help bats, but the best thing you can do for them is to leave them alone until you call the CWHC hotline.
Source: Tessa McBurney
Learn more about the Stewardship for Protection and Monitoring of Atlantic Canada's Endangered Bat Species at https://www.upei.ca/communications/news/2020/06/curious-about-bats-call-1-833-434-bats-2287.