Disappearing Bats

Scientists hope to save two native species from deadly syndrome

Colin MacLean webcomments@ngnews.ca
Published on March 10, 2011

Bats. Merely uttering the word evokes mixed emotions. Images running through your mind can range from beloved comic-book characters to horrible nightmare creatures.

But whatever gut reaction takes hold, the reality of what bats actually are is far from the image popular culture has created for them.

Bats are mammals important to ecosystems because they devour tons of insects every year.

But for all their importance, some species of bats face an uncertain future, including the population in Newfoundland and Lab-rador.

Researchers are in a race against time to find out as much as they can about local bats before it’s too late.

The ticking clock is white nose syndrome, a fungus that affects the snouts and wings of bats and appears to force the animals out of hibernation early, resulting in their starvation.

The syndrome has killed millions of bats in the United States, and is inching its way closer to Atlantic Canada every year.

The syndrome was recently cited as the reason why Vermont put its two species of bats on the endangered species list. These same two species are found throughout Atlantic Canada.

Hugh Broders, chairman of the department of biology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax is on the front line of efforts to study Newfoundland bats.

‘“We’re expecting (white nose syndrome) to hit the Maritimes within the next few years,” said Broders, a native of Fogo Island.

“Hopefully, we don’t get it, but it would be more surprising if we don’t get it. If we do get it and it has the same impact here as it’s had in New York and other places, it’s going to be devastating.”

Broders has been collaborating with members of the wildlife division of Newfoundland’s Department

of Environment and Conservation for several years on annual research expeditions in Newfoundland.

The trips into the backcountry and the subsequent lab work are  focused on answering one important question.

“One of the questions I have is if islands will be refugia for bats. In other words, maybe this fungus that causes white nose syndrome can’t get to Newfoundland ... and if that’s true, bats on the island of Newfoundland need extra protection because they might be the only ones left at the end of this,” said Broders.

No one knows if Newfoundland’s two species of bats, the little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat, overwinter here or if they fly to the mainland to hibernate.

 If they hibernate in Newfoundland, that means they could be protected from the syndrome. However, if the local population mingles with bats from the mainland, it is likely the fungus will find its way here.

Scientists are hoping Newfoundland’s bats are overwintering at home, said Bruce Rodrigues, an ecologist with the Department of Environment and Conservation.

Rodrigues and Broders have worked together in their efforts to discover where Newfoundland bats hibernate.

Rodrigues makes several outings every year to abandoned mines and caves in Newfoundland looking for large hibernating bat populations.

“The last couple of years we’ve been going out in the winter, working with Mines and Energy, and trying to find out where the mines are, are they suitable for bats, are they back-filled or are they still open. To date we haven’t found a lot of bats. We’ve found some bats in some of these mines, but not necessarily a large population,” said Rodrigues.

Bat concentrations can be spotty, making finding a large population difficult, added Allysia Park, a colleague of Rodrigues who studied Newfoundland bats for her master’s degree.

As part of her research, which took place about four years ago, she caught and attached small radio transmitters to several bats and tracked their movements.

“The first summer, in regards to distribution, I did find that northern long-eared bats were more restricted and that they weren’t found on the Avalon Peninsula, whereas the little brown bats were. Both species generally had a very patchy distribution over the island,” she said.

Broders has also tried to track the bats’ movements.

He’s removed blood and small tissue samples, neither of which harms the animal, to trace the genetics of Atlantic Canadian bats. He hopes his experiment will tell him definitively if Newfoundland bats hibernate here or somewhere else.

“Basically, what we want to do is use DNA to determine whether or not there are movements of animals from the island of Newfoundland to the mainland,” said Broders.

If genetic material from Newfoundland bats is connected to that of the mainland population then scientists will know the two groups are probably one and the same.

If it turns out Newfoundland bats hibernate here then it could be good news for the long-term survival of both native species, said Park.

“If we actually determine whether or not we have populations that wouldn’t be affected from this syndrome, we could potentially eventually repopulate other areas, (using Newfoundland bats),” she said.

As the bat research continues, the scientists say they would appreciate input from the public. If anyone’s cat happens to bring home a dead bat or if one happens to be found somewhere, Broders would be interested in examining it. He can be reached by email at Hugh.broders@smu.ca.

Broders and Rodrigues would also like to know if anyone in Newfoundland knows of a cave or mine with a large population of bats. Anyone who does is encouraged to contact them by email. Rodrigues can be reached at  brucerodrigues@gov.nl.ca.

But these calls for help come with a warning — the scientists are imploring potential cave explorers to avoid caves with bats, as white nose syndrome is suspected to be spread from cave to cave by humans.

Scientists going into these environments take special precautions to avoid spreading the disease.