Guano — or, bat poop — could be the key to protecting Alberta's bat populations, which are being wiped out by the thousands from a fungal disease.
A new community program is enlisting Albertans to collect the flying mammals' feces to help track their population.
The Alberta Community Bat Program is asking people to collect samples from barns, attics or other buildings which may have been infested with the creatures of the night.
- Alberta bats could be better adapted to slow spread of white-nose syndrome
- Bats nearly wiped out by white-nose syndrome in Eastern Canada
The droppings will help researchers determine where different species of bats are choosing to hibernate, which habitats they prefer, and which colonies may be suffering declines.
"We're encouraging people to submit a report of the roost that they've observed," said Cory Olson, a biologist and coordinator of the Alberta Community Bat Program.
"But what we're really hoping people will do is submit us a sample of bat guano. This is about a teaspoon amount of guano that we collect and then send to a genetics lab in B.C. for species identification."
'We really need to get ahead of this disease'
The program, created in partnership with members of the Alberta Bat Action Team, began as a way to contend with the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on the nose and tissues of little brown bats while they hibernate over winter.
The disease has killed an estimated 6.7 million bats since it was first detected in New York state in 2006. Though it's unlikely the spread of the disease can be stopped, researching the population now will help conservation efforts in the future.
"It has spread across the continent, so it's very much poised to spread throughout the Rocky Mountains," Olson said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.
'We really need to get ahead of this disease to collect some information about the types of habitats bats are using, and to have more public outreach programs.' - Cory Olson, biologist and coordinator, Alberta Community Bat Program.
"It hasn't reached Alberta yet but we've realized that we really need to get ahead of this disease to collect some information about the types of habitats bats are using, and to have more public outreach programs.
"And that really needs to happen before this disease gets here, because once it gets here, it's quite possible that we'll see large scale population declines in the province."
Olson is hopeful the citizen science could help researchers compile a database of habitats and track populations of the nine different bat species that call Alberta home.
Since the project began last year, they've collected more than 40 samples and published a guide for managing bats in buildings. They've hosted information sessions across the province, and now have program coordinators in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Northern Alberta.
"It's been going pretty great," said Olson. "We started the program last year and really got going this year and we've been getting some really good momentum as we've continued."
'It's a work in progress'
Despite the success so far, Olson admits that getting people to pluck bat poop off the floor, place it in an envelope and mail it into their offices is a bit of a hard sell.
"It's a work in progress," he said.
"I think there are probably thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of roosts in the province and only a small percentage of them get reported to us, so it's something we're trying to get out there, and encourage more people to submit observations."
More and more often, bats, especially in urban environments are foregoing rock crevices and caves in favour of human buildings — habitats which provide reliable warmth and protection from predators, Olson said.
These infestations are usually "maternity colonies," where mother bats are rearing their pups. Bats are incredibly social and the colonies can range from just a couple animals to a couple thousand.
For many property owners contending with the colonies, the bats are unwelcome vermin that should be exterminated.
But perceptions of bats are apparently starting to soften.
"When you have that many bats in your building, you tend to take note. You tend to get curious," Olson said.
"Some people hate bats but there is actually a growing number of people who are really interested in conserving bats and protecting them.
"Most of them want bats around, they just don't want bats in their building."