What's Threatening our Bats?

  • White Nose Syndrome
  • Protecting western Canada from WNS
  • Disturbance During Hibernation
  • Habitat Loss
  • Wind Farms
  • White Nose Syndrome (WNS)

    In 2006, an unusual fungal disease was noticed by cavers in New York State, growing on hibernating bats in Howes Cave.  Since then, this disease, which is typified by white fungus growing on the nose and other exposed flesh of bats, has spread across eastern North America, wiping out up to 99% of bats in hibernacula.  The bats will arouse frequently to groom the fungus off of its skin, and to allow its immune system to return to a normal state for fighting infection; this burns up their precious fat reserves.  The disease also has systemic effects which cause acidosis of the blood, forcing the bats to burn more energy.  Eventually, the hungry bats will venture out into the winter to seek food, only to die from starvation.  Entire species of bats are at risk of extinction or extirpation, with two more species recently classified as endangered in Canada due to the outbreak. The disease is currently endemic from Nova Scotia to Ontario, and in the south from Georgia to Missouri.  While the disease has not been seen in Manitoban hibernacula yet, it is thought that it could reach the west coast in 12-20 years.  In the east, almost 100% mortality is being reported at some cave hibernacula - where there used to be thousands of hibernating bats, there are now only carcasses.  Due to their slow reproductive ability, bats cannot rebound from mass die-back and thus ecosystems in areas of WNS infection are likely to be impacted over the long term by the loss of natural insect control. 

    The implications for western Canada could be enormous:  the vulnerability of western-specific species of bat to WNS is largely unknown, but could impact as many as 14 species.  The rarest of these, the Keen's Long-eared myotis, faces extinction if found to be vulnerable to WNS. Strategies for mitigating the effects of WNS are needed, and research is ongoing.  The longer the west can remain WNS-free, the more time there is to develop these critical conservation strategies.

     

    Protecting western Canada from WNS

    What we know to date is that this disease is passed primarily by bat to bat contact, but it is highly likely that spores could be passed by other means as well.  For this reason, protocols are being established for western Canada to slow the spread of WNS into the west.  The greatest risk from humans is if a person visits caves or mines where WNS exists in the east and then travels west, introducing the spores to caves or mines there.  This disease does not affect humans, but sudden introduction of WNS to bats in the west would be catastrophic.  Clothing, helmets, footwear and other caving equipment should be thoroughly decontaminated using the procedures found here. This protocol, specific to western Canada, was established in consultation between government, bat biologists and cavers. As decontamination procedures are refined and thoroughly tested, it may be that in the future all caving gear used in WNS infected areas can be safely decontaminated and used again in the West.  Until then, it is recommended that if you go underground in a cave that houses WNS infected bats, that you do not use that gear underground in western Canada. 

     

    Disturbance during Hibernation

    During hibernation, bats go into a dormant low energy state.   Their bodies cool almost to the cave temperature which ideally remains just above freezing and they also prefer a high humidity environment which slows dehydration.  Their heart beat slows to 3-5 beats per minute and their respiration also drops.  In this way they conserve energy and use their stored fat to survive the long winters when there are few bugs to eat.  At this time, disturbance of bats can cause them to arouse, which burns more energy.   It is imperative that if you see hibernating bats that you leave them undisturbed.  They can be woken by sound, light, even your body heat.  They can take up to 20 minutes to wake up so you might not even realize you have disturbed them.  Repeated disturbance can burn so much of their body fat that they may not survive the winter.  As a rule, cave passages where bats are known to hibernate should not be visited during winter.

    Another threat to bats during hibernation are blasting activities.  Road or other blasting work conducted within a mile of bat hibernacula can be extremely disruptive as shock waves are powerful enough to dislodge hibernating bats.  Work in proximity to bat caves should be conducted when bats have left hibernacula; generally, June through September.

     

    Habitat Loss

    Habitat loss is causing declines in bat and other wildlife populations worldwide.  Bats use older trees for roosting in various ways.  They will hang under large moss-line branches, secrete themselves within furrowed and exfoliating bark and use hollows within trees.  These can be night or day roosts and can also be maternity colonies if they are secure and warm enough.  Older trees can provide an uncluttered understory which encourages feeding by bats.  Conversely, young post-logging forests lack most of these attributes.  Other forms of habitat loss include destruction of cliff roosts by quarrying, repeated human disturbance of cliff roosts by climbers and cave habitat by cavers, and pollution.  Disturbance by ongoing blasting such as at mines can create exclusion zones from bat habitat.  On the plus side, bats will use houses, other structures, and disused mines for roosting or hibernation.  Some bats are more adaptable than others to habitat disturbance but rare species can be pushed toward extinction due to more specific requirements.


    Wind Farms

    Wind farms are responsible for the deaths of thousands of bats and birds annually due to collisions with turbine blades.  This mostly affects high-flying and migratory bats.  Research into deterrence and mitigation strategies is ongoing.  Site placement can have major effects on mortality.  Deterrence can include using ultrasonic emitters to warn bats when they are too close to the blades, while halting the turbines in 'shoulder' periods (when power generation is minimal due to little wind) can minimize mortality.  In the long term, abandoning moving blades for other forms of wind generation may be a better solution.  One promising strategy is 'reed' generators which use tall strips that bend with the wind, generating piezo-electric power.

     


    Protect Bats

    Bats are very sensitive to disturbance while hibernating. If you see hibernating bats, leave the area immediately.

    Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com
    MORE

    Clean Gear

    Decontaminating your gear between caving trips can prevent the spread of WNS.



    Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com
    MORE

    Find Bats

    Install a bat monitoring device in a cave or mine when you go caving.



    Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com
    MORE

    Updates

    NEW HIBERNACULUM FOUND

    February 2017

    On a February 2017 trip to the boreal forest of northern Alberta, BatCaver volunteers have confirmed the use of a cave by Little Brown Myotis bats for hibernation.  In this cave, 213 Myotis lucifugus were counted, but it is suspected that more exist.  The cave itself is unusual in that it was formed by a light sulphuric acid dissolving the limestone, making the environment fairly inhospitable for humans.  Bats were swabbed for samples of DNA and to monitor for signs of white-nose syndrome.  Ultrasonic data loggers that record bat activity were deployed, along with temperature and humidity loggers which gather information on the type of cave climate the bats are using at this site.  This is the third largest hibernaculum found in Alberta to date.

    In our partnering with the general public, biologists and the caving community, other smaller newly discovered hibernation sites have been brought to our attention.  These include sites in British Columbia in the regions of these communities:  near Victoria; Port Alberni; Greenwood;  Dawson Creek; and Hudsons Hope.  Many other old mine sites have been found to contain large numbers of hibernating bats, primarily in southern BC.

    Click here to read the full press release.


    NEW EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS

    February 2017

    The BatCaver program has produced brochures aimed at people visiting caves which explain the risks of inadvertently transporting white-nose syndrome spores from one region to another.  It also contains conservation messaging, decontamination protocols for WNS and contacts for further information.   

    These have been sent to tourist caves in western Canada as well as caving organizations.  In addition, we have produced signage regarding bat conservation messaging, intended for posting at entrances to bat hibernation caves.  Other signage has been produced in consultation with BC Parks, for posting at trailheads to provincial cave parks which has similar conservation messaging.  We are also workng with other bat groups across Canada on bat translocation signage.  This is regarding the issues around bats being accidentally transported by campers and their vehicles when moving around North America.  The concern is regarding moving bats infected with white-nose syndrome to uninfected regions.

    Video

    White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungal disease that has caused up to 100% bat mortality in cave hibernacula in Eastern Canada and United States. The longer the West can remain WNS-free, the more time there is to develop critical conservation strategies for vulnerable bat species.

    WNS AND WESTERN CANADA

    DECONTAMINATION PROTOCOLS FOR VISITING BAT HIBERNACULA

    Watch this video in French.

    Copyright 2017 by Wildlife Conservation Society