They are often feared. Yet they are also needed. Now, they are in trouble.
With a disease virtually wiping out bat colonies across the continent, an effort asking the public to assist in identifying spaces where bats can still be found is coming to Ontario in an attempt to track the endemic fungus.
Batwatch.ca began its work in Quebec in 2012, but it is now being expanded to Ontario and Manitoba in an effort to understand and contain White-nose Syndrome. The disease has a very high mortality rate and the potential to disrupt Ontario’s bat populations – natural pest killers who protect the province’s agriculture, particularly corn, from harmful bugs.
Named after a fungus that grows on the noses and wings of certain kinds of infected bats, the disease is believed to disrupt the hibernation of the bats, leading them to expend too much energy and die of starvation before spring.
“We’ve lost millions of bats in North America and probably a couple of million bats in Canada,” says Craig Willis, associate professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg who is helping to expand the Bat Watch into Ontario and Manitoba. “There are mortality rates of up to 100 per cent in some hibernation sites.”
Because of the syndrome’s rapid spread and high toll, the Canadian government has listed three types of bats – the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-coloured bat – as endangered species.
While bats are considered by many people to be ugly, annoying creatures that infest barns and attics, they’re actually vital to natural ecosystems and agriculture.
Bats eat insects. A lot of insects: a small colony can eat more than 600 million bugs a year. Apart from keeping the mosquito count down, this appetite for insects has a direct impact on the human food supply. It has been estimated that by consuming insects that feed on farm crops, bats are worth as much as $50 billion U.S. per year in pest control services to the American agriculture system alone.
“If we lose millions of bats, we lose millions of kilograms of insect consumption,” Willis says.
One group in Ontario that might need to be especially concerned is the province’s corn farmers. Roughly 60 per cent of Canadian corn is grown in Ontario, and according to Willis, research in the U.S. has shown corn to be one crop that really benefits from insect-eating bats.
Still, while scientists know that hundreds of thousands of bats have died in Ontario because of White-nose Syndrome, truly understanding the scope of the problem has been difficult.
Willis says the impact on Canadian agriculture may not be quite as great as in the U.S. since bats are less abundant in the north and insect eating bats are less successful in colder climates.
The fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome was accidentally brought to North America from Europe around 2006. Bats in Europe appear immune to the fungus’ effects, but it has been devastating to North American bats.
“The trouble is that we don’t know how many bats are actually out there,” says Paul Faure, associate professor in the department of psychology, neuroscience & behaviour, and principal investigator at McMaster University’s Bat Lab. “We don’t know what fraction we’ve lost or how serious this disease really is.”
That’s where Bat Watch comes in. It asks members of the public to report sightings, not simply of bats flying around, but of known bat colonies in buildings – and sometimes trees – where the number of bats coming in and out can be observed.
Willis hopes that people will also be willing to count the number of bats in colonies they spot. Willis stresses counting bats is “one of the most relaxing ways to do science you can think of.” It mostly involves sitting in a lawn chair, with a pencil and paper and perhaps a cold beverage, and noting the number of bats that fly out of an observable space around sunset.
Data collected is being used to help determine why some bats don’t die from the disease and whether the traits that help them survive can be passed to their offspring.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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