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White nose syndrome: the fight to save bats heats up

An invasive species from Europe has been wreaking havoc on bats in northwestern Ontario and Manitoba but a team of researchers is fighting to stop the deadly disease and they want the public to help.

New website, research aim to tackle disease which can kill 99 per cent of bats in a colony

Kaleigh Norquay (l) and Erin Segstro, researchers from the University of Winnipeg, stand outside a cave about 20 minutes west of Thunder Bay. They recently carried out equipment tests ahead of a night of swabbing and tagging bats. (Shaun Malley/CBC)

An invasive species from Europe has been wreaking havoc on bats in northwestern Ontario and Manitoba, but a team of researchers is fighting to stop the deadly disease and they want the public to help.

'This is actually the largest mammalian decline on record," said Kaleigh Norquay, a research co-ordinator with the Willis Bat Lab at University of Winnipeg. "[White nose syndrome] is just decimating. Probably 10 million bats have died so far."

The flying mammals are a key part of Canada's forests and their loss could upset the balance of nature, she said.

Norquay and a colleague, Erin Segstro, are criss-crossing Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, visiting eight monitoring stations set up at various caves.

They set up an elaborate contraption called a harp trap to safely catch bats at the entrance of caves. The bats are then swabbed and some of them are tagged.

The motion sensor panel wedged into the cave at an area nicknamed Little Pig, about twenty minutes west of Thunder Bay. The researchers have set up and maintained eight such sites across Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. (Shaun Malley/CBC)

A solar-powered instrument tracks the comings and goings of tagged bats, while the swabbed material is sent to a lab for genetic analysis. Segstro says tagging and analyzing bats is the key to stopping the syndrome.

"[The] genetic samples that we're taking may help bats in the future, in [seeing] what the surviving bats have that the white nose syndrome bats do not," she said.


Why the fuss? The knock-on effect of losing any species is potentially catastrophic, according to the researchers. Bats eat lots of insects; without bats to consume them, an overabundance of insects might wreak havoc on the environment.

"Bats are the number one consumer of night-flying insects," said Norquay. "That includes some pests, like biting flies and mosquitoes as well. Bats are incredibly important for making sure that insect pests that go after crops are kept in check."

Enlisting citizen scientists

In partnership with Quebec's forestry ministry, the University of Winnipeg has launched a website to track of the problem. Neighbourhood Bat Watch lets people flag bat colonies to researchers. It also offers tips on how to set up a bat house.

Meanwhile, Norquay is creating a special bat house of her own.

The research co-ordinator is working on the electrical wiring for a warming box. The box will be ready for spring to help soften the often rough time bats have waking from hibernation.

She said the tracking program might expand next year, with three new monitoring stations near Kenora and Thunder Bay in the works.

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