PEI

Researchers trap and track bats in P.E.I. National Park

A researcher is spending the summer trapping and tracking little brown bats in the P.E.I. National Park. The bats have been listed as a species at risk in Canada due to a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome that has been decimating populations across eastern North America.

The study aims to learn more about where the endangered animals roost during the day to better protect them

Researcher Evan Woelk Balzer holds a little brown bat he caught in P.E.I. National Park. (Evan Woelk Balzer)

Evan Woelk Balzer stands on the side of the road inside the P.E.I. National Park holding a radio antenna in the air and listens. He slowly spins until he hears what he is searching for — a faint beep. 

Balzer is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo. He is spending the summer trapping and tracking little brown bats in the P.E.I. National Park.

The bats have been listed as a species at risk in Canada due to a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome that has been decimating populations across eastern North America. 

The beep Balzer is searching for, he said, is like "finding a needle in a haystack." The bat he's looking for was one he trapped using a giant net 14 days prior.

He catalogued the bat — a female, he nicknamed after his wife Katrina — and glued a thumbnail-sized radio transmitter on its back. The bats could travel up to 3 kilometres to roost. All he can do is drive around the area, stopping every 500 metres to listen for a signal. 

Evan Woelk Balzer studies bats as part of his graduate studies at The University of Waterloo (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

Trap and track

Each bat transmitter gives off a special frequency. So far, he's trapped 84 little brown bats and tagged about 20. Of those, he's tracked 16 to the place where they roost for the day. Many of those places are the roofs of homes in and around the national park. 

"What we're trying to do is understand what makes these places special," said Balzer.  

"Because if we understand where bats are going, and what's special then maybe we can do a better job of protecting those spaces."

The P.E.I. National Park is supporting the three-year study to discover where bats roost. (P.E.I. National Park )

'Shocking' decline in population

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in North America in 2007. It is a fungal disease that wakes bats up during their hibernation seasons, when there is little to feed on. It presents as white patches on the nose and wings of the bats. 

"It's shocking," Balzer said.  "Generally speaking, it's understood to be a 99 per cent population decline in bats affected by white nose."

In P.E.I., Balzer said, about 40 per cent of the bats he's found have scarring from the disease. 

Researchers lay out nets at dusk to trap the bats and tag them with transmitters. (Evan Woelk Balzer)

"The most heartbreaking thing is finding scars over the wings and ears of these bats," said Balzer.

"Others have scars like right across both wings and some of them even have holes in their wings where the fungus is causing necrosis, which is where the tissue just dies."

Balzer spends his nights trapping bats, cataloguing their data, and trying to find where they've gone to roost during the day. 

'Critical habitat'

Parks Canada has been collecting its own data since 2014 using acoustic monitors to try to locate where bats have the most activity in the park. 

Acting park ecologist Kerry-Lynn Atkinson said the new data will give a more complete picture of how many bats are living in the park, where, and how they are being affected by white-nose syndrome. 

"The important information is where are these bats going when they finish feeding for the night," said Atkinson. 

"Where are they going back to roost, because that's critical habitat, and we really want to protect that."

Bat populations have been decimated since White Nose Syndrome was discovered in North America in 2007. (Jordi Segers)

Parks Canada is helping fund the project, and allowing Balzer to use their research facilities and some equipment. 

"It's really good to see everybody coming together to provide the expertise and the information that we need to monitor these species at risk," said Atkinson. 

Researchers will continue trapping and tracking bats in the P.E.I. National Park in the summer of 2020, and file a report with their findings in 2021. 

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About the Author

Stephanie vanKampen

Videojournalist

Stephanie vanKampen is a videojournalist with the CBC News in Prince Edward Island. Send story ideas to stephanie.vankampen @cbc.ca

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