Nature Canada

Battle for the Bats: White-nose syndrome hits Newfoundland

We silently crouched in a small open field, eyes strained and scanning the horizon as the last of  the sun’s rays dipped from view. In the midst of summer, we waited on the outskirts of a small coastal town in Newfoundland, ready for the action to begin. A cacophony of squeaks vibrated through the air above, before a lone furry silhouette darted into the night. Finally, the moment we were waiting for is here.

One by one, the bats emerged from a hole in the side of an old building, no bigger than an inch. It was surrealbefore us flew countless acrobats, twisting and gliding through the air. As the mosquitoes buzzed around our awestruck faces, a bat suddenly swooped in from behind me to snap up the insect, barely a foot away from my face. The only evidence of the encounter was the lingering gust of wind from its passing wingbeat. I had never seen so many bats in my entire life as almost a hundred took to the night sky. It’s hard to imagine that soon this roost will be all but wiped out.

This sobering thought is all because of a seemingly small and insignificant fungusa white fluffy organism that grows on a handful of bat species. This fungus is at the heart of white-nose syndrome, an epidemic that is single-handedly decimating bat populations across the continent. Once a bat is infected, the disease causes them to wake up mid-hibernation. Caught in the cold of winter, they quickly run through their energy stores before the relief of spring. Mortality rates in infected hibernacula can range upwards of 75%, meaning that entire roosts can be wiped out in a single season. 

For a long time, white-nose syndrome was landlocked, reaching from Manitoba to the Maritimes. With Newfoundland separated from mainland Canada, scientists hoped that the island could act as an ideal bat refuge. However, in 2018, in a tranquil town only a ten-minute drive from the roost I was in awe of, one of the first recorded cases of white-nose syndrome in Newfoundland was discovered. The beginning of the end.

With the disease able to spread over 200 kilometres per year, it won’t be long until the entire island is impacted. It’s hard to imagine returning to this spot next year with baited breath, to see if this currently vibrant roost has become yet another casualty. The odds aren’t looking good.

The loss of these bats can be even more keenly felt than just being a lost source of wonder. They are integral not only to the ecosystem, but to us humans. For example, as the bats swooped and swirled around us, they were picking off the mosquitoes diligently attacking any exposed skin. While some southern bat species are fruit-eaters and excellent pollinators, bats in Canada exclusively eat insects. They consume thousands of bugs, not only making them an important part of the food chain, but also phenomenal natural pest controllers. As bat numbers dwindle, this means that more insects are making it to our plants and crops, therefore negatively impacting the agricultural industry. The devastating reach of white-nose syndrome extends far beyond the roost.

There is currently no cure for white-nose syndrome. I can not begin to describe how hard it is to write this—it feels like too hopeless of a statement to voice out loud. However, scientists are racing to find a solution. Some strategies include using bacteria, UV light, or chemicals to prevent fungal growth. While these methods haven’t found widespread success, at least they offer a glimmer of hope that we may be able to save these bat species.

While scientists are working to find the cure, there is plenty that we, as citizen scientists, can do to help. For example, The Canadian Wildlife Federation has outlined a myriad of ways that we can be heroes for bats; from reporting bat sightings on iNaturalist, to adding plants to the garden that attract bats’ prey, there’s no limit to the ways you can make a difference. If you live in the Ottawa area, you can even borrow Nature Canada’s bat detectors and conduct your own bat surveys in your neighbourhood. Another way to help is to add bat boxes to your property. These shelters provide useful roosting sites, especially in urban centers where suitable habitats are in low supply. There are still many of ways to fight back.

As I look back on my mesmerizing bat encounter, I choose to remember it as a wakeup call. A chance for me to get active and get this story out there. To give a voice to the countless wings that darted around me on that summer night. It’s easy to fall into a stupor of hopelessness, where we choose inaction as the easiest pathafter all, why bother trying to solve the seemingly unfixable? It’s by us standing up, raising awareness, and caring that makes all the difference. It’s time to battle for the bats.

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