Researcher horrified by discovery of deadly white-nose syndrome in Manitoba bats

For the first time, a fatal infection known as white-nose syndrome has been detected in Manitoba bats.

Infection has killed millions of bats in North America since it emerged in 2006

The first case of white-nose syndrome has been detected among bats in Manitoba, the province said Friday. (New York Department of Environmental Conservation/AP)

For the first time, a fatal infection known as white-nose syndrome has been detected in Manitoba bats.

The disease, which has devastated bat populations in other areas, was found in bats in the Lake St. George area, about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg, the province said Friday.

Kaleigh Norquay, manager of a University of Winnipeg lab that studies bats, was one of the researchers who discovered the infected bats.

"I was horrified," she said. "To walk in and see this beautiful place that normally is such a refuge for these animals to be filled with so much death … it was really hard for me."

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that attacks a bat's exposed skin — ears, wings and its nose — while the animal hibernates. The fungus thrives in cool, humid environments. 

White nose causes bats to wake up too early during hibernation, burning up valuable calories and eventually starving them to death.

A cluster of little brown bats in the St. George cave in Manitoba's Interlake in spring 2018. (courtesy Kaleigh Norquay)

Norquay said she and other researchers made the discovery at the St. George cave on March 28. Lab tests a few weeks later confirmed what they feared.

The Interlake cave is home to about 10,000 little brown bats, one of two hibernating bat species in Manitoba particularly vulnerable to white-nose syndrome. The other is northern long-eared bat.

At this stage, it's difficult to say how many bats have already died but Norquay estimates hundreds perished. In other regions where white nose has hit, up to 90 per cent of little brown bats have died.

White-nose syndrome first emerged in New York state in 2006 and has since caused the deaths of millions of bats across the United States and in six Canadian provinces: New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.

Possibly more bugs this summer

With fewer bats out this year, cottagers and campers may notice more mosquitoes and other pests in forested areas, said Bill Watkins, a biologist with the wildlife branch at Manitoba's Department of Sustainable Development.

"Bats are incredibly voracious eaters of insects. A bat can eat as many as 5,000 insects in a single night," said Watkins.

In places further south, farmers have reported impacts on agricultural crops. Aside from mosquitoes, bats feast on agricultural pests like moths and grasshoppers.

At this point, the province does not yet know what impact white nose will have on the growing season but Watkins said the province expects it to be minimal.

Other than the St. George cave no other bats with white nose have been found in Manitoba but researchers believe they are out there. White nose is highly contagious. 

Manitoba's Department of Sustainable Development says people should avoid going into caves where bats live to prevent further spread of the spores.

Bats, either living or dead, should also not be touched, the province said, because the animals can carry rabies.

White-nose syndrome poses no known health risk to people.

The province says it detected the white-nose syndrome in the Lake St. George area. (CBC News)