Researchers are studying P.E.I.'s bat population. Here's how you can help too

Masters student Tessa McBurney has spent the last couple of months on a mission to catch hundreds of bats and check on their health. 

'You can just sit out in a lawn chair and count bats'

A little brown myotis. (Jordi Segers)

Masters student Tessa McBurney has spent the last couple of months on a mission to catch hundreds of bats and check on their health. 

It's called the Bat Health Research Project and she says the goal is twofold: to find threats to bat health and change some people's fear about these sometimes endangered animals. 

"Bats, like any wildlife, can at times be associated with disease and bats are also not very well understood, so I think that contributes to the fear as well," she said.

"If people are afraid they may be more prone to lashing out at the bat, potentially injuring it or killing it."

Researchers are looking specifically at diseases bats could get sick from as well as diseases they could spread to people, McBurney said.

She's doing the work through the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at the Atlantic Veterinary College, and McBurney said she and other researchers spent the summer safely trapping bats using mist nets and harp nets.

Dr. Megan Jones and Tessa McBurney illuminating a triple high net set-up, three 12-metre-long mist nets are stacked on top of each other to increase the chances of catching high-flying bats. (Jordi Segers)

"Using these traps we actually are able to capture bats and have them in [our] hands," she said. "So for rabies we are taking small blood samples from the bats … and we're also taking a little, basically, like a mouth swab from the bat, similar to what some people may have received for COVID-19."

For the roughly 33 blood samples they have so far, researchers are testing them for rabies virus antibodies, she said. They also have around 110 mouth swabs from the bats, and they're testing those for the rabies virus RNA "which would indicate that the bats have had an active rabies infection."

And then there's the poop.

They've collected plenty of that — looking for a fungus called Histoplasma capsulatum, commonly found in bat droppings, which can cause an infection in humans called histoplasmosis.

How Islanders can help out

McBurney said they've caught nearly 190 bats and the bat population on P.E.I. is "doing fairly well."

"Many of the bats were actually pregnant, so we weren't actually able to take blood samples from them," McBurney said. "But that's fantastic because it indicates, obviously, that they're reproducing which is what we want to see in an endangered species."

A little brown myotis receiving a swab to test for rabies virus. (Jordi Segers)

They've also caught many young bats in good health.

"You can obviously tell that they're reproducing, the juveniles are at least surviving until a bit later in the summer, so that's fantastic," she said.

In June, researchers also did a count of bats at 11 roost sites across the Island. They counted 713 bats at that time. McBurney said it's an encouraging number but she's hesitant to say it's an overall population increase.

"I just don't think we have enough information yet," she said. "We can say that at least the roosts do seem to be consistent in numbers, but I think we really need to look at these trends consistently over a longer period of time."

Tessa McBurney releasing a little brown myotis, the little orange mark on the back of the bat is a bee marker glued onto the bat's fur with surgical glue to know if they recapture the same bat more than once. (Jordi Segers)

Researchers are also looking for help from the public to get more information on P.E.I.'s bat population. If people have roosts on their property, McBurney said it's as simple as sitting down and counting up.

"You can just sit out in a lawn chair and count bats," she said with a laugh. "To me that's a great way to spend a summer evening."

Another way is to report bat roosts on the Island, and the best way to let researchers know isn't by using a giant signal in the sky but by dialling the Bat Hotline number at 1-833-434-2287. 

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With files from Laura Chapin