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Bat researchers track deadly disease across northwestern Ontario

Scientists are urging people to help with the effort to track white-nose syndrome, a disease affecting bats in North America.

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

A researcher holds a little brown bat in hand. (Mary-Anne Collis)

Scientists are urging people to help with the effort to track white-nose syndrome, a disease affecting bats in North America.

The disease can cause bats to act strangely, and venture out in winter when they should be hibernating.

At this point, the disease has been found in Northern Minnesota and in Terrace Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior. And it's on the move.

Craig Willis is a biology professor at the University of Winnipeg who is studying and tracking bats in Manitoba and the northwest. (University of Winnipeg)
"We have sites in both Thunder Bay, or near Thunder Bay and near Kenora, and sadly we think it's going to hit probably those sites either this year or, if not this year, next winter for sure," said Craig Willis, a biology professor at the University of Winnipeg who is studying and tracking bats in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario.

For those who see a bat out in the open between November and March, Willis encourages them to contact either the Manitoba Bat Blitz, or a local branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

White-nose syndrome

A group of little brown bats hibernation at one of many study sites. (Mary-Anne Collis)
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.

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.

Bats are elusive by nature, which is an extra challenge for Willis and other bat researchers. Willis revels in the hunt, and his contagious sense of curiosity with bats seems to have infected Collis, and the rest of the lab.

“There’s lots we still don’t know about them,” said Willis.

This range map shows confirmed incidences of white-nose syndrome across North America (Map courtesy of whitenosesyndrome.org)

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.