Bats are a valuable part of the ecosystem as they are crucial aerial insectivores, and they even protect crops and gardens from pests. However, a fungal 'white nose syndrome' is devastating to a whole roost of bats during hibernation. This is why researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are working on the conservation of two endangered bat species, the little brown bats and the northern myotis bats.
According to Lauren McDonald, Research and Outreach Coordinator for Dr. Jeffrey Lane in the Biology Department at the University of Saskatchewan, to conserve the bats, they first have to find them. This can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
"So we're searching for two sorts of important roosts, maternity roosts and hibernaculums across Saskatchewan. So maternity roosts are formed in the spring and summer, when pregnant females gathering together and hibernaculums are where the bats go to hibernate together," she explained. "So we're asking the public to help us by telling us if they have any known roosts, whether it's in their home or their barn or in a nearby tree, and from there we can see if they are maternity roosts or hibernaculums, of these endangered bats."
She said one can tell if bats are on their property, for example, if they see bat guano underneath the roof.
"So that guano is the poop, the droppings, and they kind of look a bit like mouse poop. They're little black and brown pellets in the shape of rice," MacDonald noted. "If it's in a building that people are often in, you might know because you can hear them throughout the day and the night they kind of sounds like scratching in the walls or ceilings. Or sometimes you can hear them like chittering or squeaking throughout the day and night."
One might also be able to identify the presence of bats because they can see them returning to a particular location.
"Especially when they're leaving a roof around dusk or returning around dawn, it's usually the easiest time to see it, when the skies still have a little bit of light that you can see the bats," she noted.
Providing as much detail as possible will help researchers with determining if the roost is a viable study location.
"Whether you've seen one bat flying around or you have dozens of bats, that can really help us narrow down where we want to look, and if it sounds like the behaviour you're describing is something that we might find in those endangered bats, from there, we decide that it sounds like a promising site. We might ask to come out with an echolocation detector."
She said through the echolocation detector, they are able to determine what species of bat it is.
"You might have something like a big brown bat, and they're not endangered. It's still important to know where they are, but we're specifically looking for those two endangered hibernating bats," she explained. "We have several researchers and students who are working on this, so we would come out, just a couple of us, to put up a bat detector. Then if we do determine it's the species that we are looking for, whether it's in the fall when we're looking for the hibernaculum, or if it's the spring when we're looking for those maternity roosts."
MacDonald said they may even ask to come out and actually catch the bats.
"We want to catch them so that we can see if they're being affected by white-nose syndrome, this fungus. We can sample for that, and we're also really interested in how healthy they are," she shared.
She said white-nose syndrome was accidentally introduced to North America in 2007 in Albany, New York, and from there, it's been spreading westward and was first detected in Saskatchewan in 2021.
White-nose syndrome is a fungus that eats away at the bats' skin while they're hibernating, which causes them to rouse from their slumber and burn up their winter storage fat and they starve to death. While there is no known cure for what is considered 'one of the worst animal diseases in the world', killing millions of bats in just a few short years, biologists can encourage survival rates through their steadfast work.
"Part of our research is trying to determine which types of roosts have the healthiest bats in them. The fattest bats are most likely to survive white nose syndrome, so if we can identify what kind of roost produces the fattest bat, whether it's something small like the temperature or the humidity, or if there's a nearby landscape feature that's more conducive to a healthy bat, like a wetland or a forest, then we can hopefully implement these features through habitat conservation or roost enhancements to give bats the best chance they have at survival of white nose syndrome, and to make sure those who do survive have the best chance of recovering."
While some would relocate the bats, the researchers are not allowed to do so, but pest control experts around the province are able to help with this.
It is illegal, in fact, to kill bats to remove them from properties.
"There's some specific policy and discussion regarding that regarding bats, and you do have to work with pest control to exclude them at the proper time," she said. "That's usually after the maternity roosts have disbanded, so all the pups can now fly. You can usually put a one-way valve where they're coming in and out to make sure that they leave and can't come back, but that's not something that we do. We can catch them and even if we try to relocate them, they will just go back to where they were. They're very, very loyal to their roosts and they can navigate back to their roosts from pretty far distances."
"Labs like mine are working on ways to conserve and protect the bats and give them the best chance of survival through things like habitat enhancement through fattening them up as best we can, in hopes that they survive the winter."
Saskatchewan's bats are all aerial insectivores, eating moths, flies, mosquitoes, beetles, and more.
"They're a vital ecological service, as they're keeping many insect pests in check and this is really important for the agricultural and forestry industries," MacDonald noted.
"This natural pest control is truly innumerable because they're keeping all of these crop pests down. It's hard to predict the exact say like economic impacts, but lots of studies predict that they're worth billions of dollars for the agriculture and forestry industries, due to this pest control power they have."
Producers can encourage bats on their properties by introducing a bat box, which is a type of roost bats can live in, or by adding a few more natural landscape features on their lands like wetlands, or a pond, or a forested area.
While their lab doesn't keep the bats, they will catch the endangered species to do measurements and other tests before being released.
"So they kind of get a little checkup, they get weighed, they get measured. We take some blood from them, and we have a very fancy machine that is a bit like an MRI that tells us how much fat is on the bat," she shared. "All of this together tells us their body condition, so we can predict whether or not these bats are going to survive the winter."
She added, "People are concerned about rabies and stuff with bats, and although less than one percent of bats have rabies, it's very rare, there is always potential to contract rabies from a bat bite, so we just always advise never to touch a bat with your bare hands or anything like that. Even that one percent is likely an overestimation, but because rabies is so serious, taking precautions is always the best bet."
Opening a window or door is definitely the best option if one is trapped inside, as bats don't want to be inside and will find their way out. Alternatively, trapping it in a bucket can help avoid contact, or, if picking one up is required, thick leather gloves will provide the necessary protection.
This research project is under financial support from the Government of Canada and the Federal Department of Environment and Climate Change, as well as the national Fish and Wildlife Foundations.
Anyone who is able to report a roost of bats in the area can email the researchers at email@example.com.
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