Nova Scotia

Little brown bat population down to zero in some Cape Breton locations

The little brown bat population on Cape Breton has been decimated by white-nose syndrome, an ongoing study by the Atlantic Coastal Action Program confirms.

ACAP project co-ordinator Sarah Penney says the numbers are scary

White-nose syndrome first surfaced in Canada in 2010 and has spread from Ontario through Quebec into the Maritime provinces. (Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/AP)

The little brown bat population on Cape Breton has been decimated by white-nose syndrome, an ongoing study by the Atlantic Coastal Action Program confirms.

The disease surfaced in Canada in 2010 and has spread from Ontario through Quebec into the Maritime provinces.

White-nose syndrome causes bats to develop white patches on their muzzles and other parts of their bodies during winter hibernation. Affected bats appear to wake up from hibernation early and weakened, and they often die. 

Bats are major insect eaters and there are fears large bat mortalities will affect the forestry and agricultural industries. 

ACAP Cape Breton has been monitoring the population of Myotis lucifugus — doing a count at bat colony sites — since 2013.  

"The maternity colony counts are scary," said project co-ordinator Sarah Penney, backing up the statement with some grim statistics.

Grim statistics

ACAP identified eight sites where bats would sleep during the day and watched as the animals came out at dusk.

"Our biggest colony was in Sydney Forks, and in the first year about 270 bats came out of that structure in about an hour," she said.

"We did the same count last year and only 32 bats emerged at the highest count. And we went back again this year, and there were no bats coming out."

Cape Breton Atlantic Coastal Action Program bat survey project co-ordinator Sarah Penney says the counts on the island are scary. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

Penny said counts at the seven other locations last year showed no bats at all.

The onset of white nose syndrome has been quick and deadly in the Maritimes since it was first confirmed in Cape Breton in the winter of 2013-2014, she said.

"Ninety to 99 per cent mortality in affected bat species — I think that's pretty stark," added Penny.

Bat sightings becoming rare

She said, according to scientific studies she's read, a small number of the animals in other areas have escaped the devastating effects of the fungus.

"The bats that do survive white nose syndrome continue to survive year after year. So they must have some kind of natural resistance to it," she said.

But by all accounts, a sighting of a little brown bat is a rare thing these days. ACAP will proceed with its monitoring project this summer, using a microphone and recording equipment in some places — and will go back to Sydney Forks late in the season to conduct another count.  

"But it's not looking good," said Penny.

With files from Information Morning and CBC's Emily Chung