Nothing spooky about Winnipeg bat lab

They’re lumped in with the same superstitious category of fearful creatures that go bump in the night, as are black cats, wolves, spiders and the rest. But Manitoba’s bats are not only generally harmless and important players in the ecological world - they’re also cute.

University of Winnipeg Willis Bat Lab researchers studying colonies across Manitoba, northwestern Ontario

      1 of 0

      Bats get a bad rap – at Halloween and year-round. They're lumped in with the same superstitious category of creatures that go bump in the night as black cats, wolves, spiders and the rest.

      But Manitoba's bats are not only generally harmless and important players in the ecological world. They're also cute, according to professor Craig Willis.

      "It's almost invariable," said Willis. "When you show people live bats, and they actually see them, with their mouths open sitting calmly in your hand, people think they're cute."
      A group of little brown bats hibernation at one of many study sites. (Mary-Anne Collis)

      Willis, founder of the University of Winnipeg Willis Bat Lab, came to embrace the winged things and field biology as a profession after taking a course as an undergrad in the Okanagan on bats and nocturnal birds.

      "It was the first time I realized that this was a thing that people actually do, and survive while doing it," said Willis.

      Willis Bat Lab

      Though the term "lab" is right there in the name, it's also kind of misleading. Most of the real work is done in the field hours away from Winnipeg in caves and bat hibernation sites called "hibernaculas."

      "[Bats are] lousy model organisms for a lot of questions in biology," said Willis. "They're tough to follow and study and they can be tough to keep in captivity. But they're great for some of the curiosity questions I'm interested in."
      This mine near Thunderbay near is the hibernation site to a colony of little brown bats being studied by the Willis Bat Lab. (Mary-Anne Collis)

      Willis brought bats to the U of W in 2006. Currently he supervises two postdoc researchers, PhD student Mary-Anne Collis, two master's students including Quinn Webber, and a number of associated undergrads.

      Willis and his students are interested in bat social behaviour and factors that influence social evolution, conservation issues facing bats, and thermoregulation (controlling the body's temperature) and hibernation.

      Superstar deep sleepers

      "Bats are among the superstars of the hibernation world," said Willis.

      "Our bats in Manitoba; a typical little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) weighs seven, eight, nine grams during the summer. They put on two to 2½ grams of fat, and then they go under ground for eight months and don't eat anything. That's about as impressive a hibernation duration as you get."
      PhD candidate Mary-Anne Collis makes a call from on a satelite phone from one of her remote field sites in Manitoba. (Dylan Baloun)

      Where as other small mammals are able to develop greater fat stores in proportion to their overall body size to help them through those cold winter months, bats have to remain trim enough to get their flighty little behinds off the ground and into their roosts.

      "Bats are constrained by the fact that they can't get so fat so that they can still fly, but somehow they have to be able to hibernate for these extended periods," said Willis. "They're doing some things both physiologically and behaviourally, including being social, that allow them to do that, but also put them at risk of white-nose syndrome in the case of little brown bats."

      White-nose syndrome

      The disease, which results in crusty fungal growths over bats' faces in the winter while they're hibernating, wakes the bats from their deep sleep prematurely, which revs up their metabolism and eats into their fat stores before spring. It has already eked its way into Eastern Canada and is knocking at Manitoba's door.

      Some biologists worry that the disease's potential entry into the province is a foregone conclusion.

      "The fungus was detected a couple of years ago in northern Minnesota just south of Kenora. No disease yet, but surveillance for the fungus has confirmed its presence," said Willis.

      Although members of the Willis lab monitor bats across Manitoba, they also keep an eye on colonies that make their home in a few abandoned mines near Thunder Bay. It wasn't one of the Willis lab's field sites that tested positive for the fungus, but there's only 200 kilometres separating their sites from the one already touched by the disease.

      "I suspect the sites we study will be hit," said Willis.
      One of the microchips embedded in bats to log an individual's behaviours is shown alongside grains of rice for comparison. (Mary-Anne Collis)

      Willis' PhD Student Mary-Anne Collis said recent research shows that individual bats In Manitoba and northwestern Ontario may fly as much as 500 kilometres from their colony's main habitat in the summer.

      "It was estimated that the fungus is moving about 300 kilometres a year," said Collis.

      The prospect of the fungus and disease hopping into the Willis study colonies, then, is real.

      Bat Facebook

      Collis came all the way from the United Kingdom to study bats and be a part of current efforts to help thwart the spread of white-nose syndrome.

      On Thursday, she took a trip a few hours north of Winnipeg into the Interlake to check in on some of her field sites for the last time before winter hits.

      Collis had to do some routine maintenance on solar powered bat detection equipment the lab has stationed at six different sites, including one site north of Peguis First Nation and one near Grand Rapids.

      She uses tiny little microchips, similar to those pet owners can have embedded in cats and dogs, to track the movements of her bats.

      Once a tagged bat flies past the detection system outside its hibernacula, the day, time and other simple variables are recorded. This allows Collis to then make broader inferences about the mortality rates and social behaviours of bats in the colony.

      "It's kind of like a bat Facebook," said Collis. "It's looking at who hangs out with who, who's moving, when they're moving, that sort of thing."
      A researcher holds a little brown bat in hand. (Mary-Anne Collis)

      Collis won't visit the equipment or bats again until February or March, when she and her labmates will enter the hibernacula to check for signs of white-nose syndrome in the colonies.

      "We only enter once during the winter just to make sure we don't disturb the bats too much," said Collis. The researchers plan to then return in the spring, when the ground begins to thaw and the bats awake and take to the wing, exiting their winter shelters en masse.

      Simulating the spread of disease

      Master's student Quinn Webber is studying how individual's behaviours influence the spread of disease across and between colonies. And Webber is doing all of this without studying disease directly.

      "We're not really in the game of infecting bats," said Webber. "Because white-nose syndrome isn't in Manitoba yet, we don't have the ability to study it yet."
      This range map shows confirmed incidences of white-nose syndrome across North America (Map courtesy of whitenosesyndrome.org)

      "I am using mathematical models to predict what might happen, which is a good way to avoid infecting bats ourselves."
      A volunteer with the lab checks on the microchip in a little brown bat used to track bat movements and other variables. (Mary-Anne Collis)

      Webber uses a noninvasive UV flourescent dust to track his bats' movements and make inferences about how something like white-nose syndrome might spread.

      "I did an experiment in the field where I would 'infect' a bat with this dust. It's not harmful, it's eco-friendly," said Willis. "Then I would do this experiment where the bats were in a simulated roost situation, where they were in a big tent in the field and I would wait a day or two, take them out and find out how much dust they had on them after being in the tent with an 'infected bat.'"

      Webber said these simple, yet elegant experimental methods may help researchers learn to anticipate how something like white-nose syndrome, and wildlife diseases more generally, spread without resorting to hurting the animals in the name of science.

      "If my results show that maybe larger colonies, or colonies that have large connection with other colonies, if those characteristics mediate [disease] transmission, then we might be able to predict which colony … might act as a hub in a transmission event," said Webber. 

      "This kind of data could be used a as a predictor for what might happen."

      Bat misconceptions

      They don't conform to our standardized ideals of beauty in anyway, but to see them up close is to have all of your vampiric ideas about massive blood-sucking bats instantly erased. Manitoba's little brown bats are, as the name suggests, diminutive, with kind of large, goofy, funnel-shaped ears, small eyes, and nostrils and wings that seem disproportionately large for their body.
      A a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) hangs in a hibernaculum. Although their range technically includes Manitoba, Craig Willis said he and his research team almost never come across them in their field work. (Mary-Anne Collis)

      "Bats are tiny but they look big when they're flying around and we can't see what's going on very well," said Willis, who has from time to time taken bats into Manitoba classrooms to help dismantle misconceptions early on.

      "Usually it's the parents or teachers that are often … not freaked out," said Willis. "The kids in the primary grades always think they're neat and they're a really great way to get kids interested in nature and biology generally."

      Bats are elusive by nature, which adds a challenging element to the job of Willis and other bat researchers. Willis revels in the hunt, and his contagious sense of curiosity with bats seems to have infected Collis, Webber and the rest of the lab.

      "There's lots we still don't know about them," said Willis.

      'Bats in your home, cabin or in the surrounding area? Give Willis a call at 204-789-1463 or email the lab at mbbatblitz@hotmail.com.