News / Edmonton

Researchers make surprise discovery of endangered bats in Alberta’s Boreal Forest

Finding where bats hibernate key to monitoring the impacts of white nose syndrome if the disease spreads to Alberta, researchers say.

A researcher exits a cave in Alberta's Boreal Forest where a cluster of endangered bats was discovered.

Contributed/Dave Hobson

A researcher exits a cave in Alberta's Boreal Forest where a cluster of endangered bats was discovered.

Researchers in Alberta have stumbled on a large population of endangered bats in the Boreal Forest that could be critical for conservation efforts.

White nose syndrome has wreaked havoc on bat populations in eastern U.S. and Canada (mortality rates are as high as 95 per cent) and was discovered in Washington State for the first time last year.

Biologists fear it’s just a matter of time before the deadly fungus reaches Alberta’s bats.

So finding a cluster of more than 200 Little Brown Myotis bats in a newly explored area of the northern forest, far from their usual hibernation site in the Rocky Mountains, was a big deal for the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada (WSC) and Alberta Environment and Parks scientists.

“Because of white nose syndrome coming into the States and Canada, we’re trying to get a handle on where our bats are. We can’t protect them if we don’t know where they are,” said Dave Critchley, the Alberta co-ordinator of WSC’s BatCaver program. “If you think about caves and where they typically are, it’s usually the mountains, especially any that have bats currently. So seeing this in the spruce-covered forest, wow, that’s a totally different expectation.”

In fact, the undisclosed cave (its location is being withheld to protect the bats) is now the third largest known hibernation site for this species of bats in the entire province.

Little Brown Myotis bats are a federally-listed endangered animal in Canada.

Contributed/WCS Canada

Little Brown Myotis bats are a federally-listed endangered animal in Canada.

Critchley said researchers only know where about 10 per cent of bats go to hibernate in the winter, so discovering new clusters can help scientists monitor conditions, get a better sense of their population and watch out for signs of white nose syndrome.

A healthy bat population is vital for pest control, said Alberta Environment and Parks senior wildlife biologist Dave Hobson.

“Bats have an important role to play in the environment,” he said. “They eat a lot of night-flying insects, which are often pests – moths and beetles – and the loss of that population would have big economic impacts on agriculture and forestry.”

Hobson said there isn’t much the government can do about white nose syndrome, so monitoring bat populations is key.

“The only thing we can do to slow its spread is to prevent human visitation to these caves or make sure those people have clean equipment and clothing,” he said.

The fungus kills by waking bats from their hibernation early, before there are any insects out for them to eat.
Human disturbance can have a similar effect.

“It’s estimated that a single arousal event uses up to 60 days worth of stored energy,” he said. “We won’t want people to start going to these caves in the winter and disturbing these bats.”

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