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Dead bat found in Port aux Basques prompted The Gulf News to seek answers regarding white nose syndrome

Fisheries and Land Resources biologist Jessica Humber swabs a bat to test for white nose syndrome. - Photo courtesy of Fisheries and Land Resources
Fisheries and Land Resources biologist Jessica Humber swabs a bat to test for white nose syndrome. - Photo courtesy of Fisheries and Land Resources - Contributed

A cat named Fluffy recently brought a dead bat home to her human in Port Aux Basques.

Since few people report seeing bats in the area, this led to many questions about bats.

For information on these often-mystifying creatures, The Gulf News reached out to Shelley Moores, senior manager of Wildlife Research with the province’s Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.

Moores says while her department doesn’t have a specific population estimation for the Port aux Basques area, bats are common across the island.

“We actually had, up until this year, really healthy bat populations,” Moores says. “They like human dwellings, so on the edge of forests or in towns that are in forested areas is where we generally see more.”

While she doesn’t actually have the bat Fluffy brought home in front of her to examine, Moores figures it was a little brown bat, which are generally found within maternal colonies in human structures.

“One of the things we ask the public to do is if they do find any dead bats, if they don’t want to handle them themselves, is to let the local Forestry and Wildlife offices know,” she advises.

Two species

Moores says there are two species of bats in this province: northern long myotis and little brown myotis.

“They are from the same genus and look very similar. They just (have) a little difference in their ears,” she says.

One has a longer tragis inside its ear.

“Little brown myotis is the one you see closer to humans and human dwellings,” Moores noted. “They are the ones that get the big maternal colonies in barns, sheds and people’s attics.”

Males in both species are solitary. They go off on their own.

Females of northern long myotis are often found in old snags, hollowed out logs.

“They don’t use human structures,” says Moores.

Both species were assessed by the Committee on The Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as endangered. Under federal legislation they are listed as endangered nationally.

“We’re looking at, now that we have the (white nose) disease here, at potential conservation measures here as well,” Moores says. “They are not listed in the provincial endangered species act, but we’re in the process now of figuring out what’s next.” 

Moores says although they know bats play a vital role in the environment, the extent of their impact is not fully understood yet.

“We don’t know all the benefits because we don’t know their role in the ecosystem entirely. We do know they have a huge role to play in insect control,” she said. “We don’t know what kind of role they might have for spreading seeds because they do stop and land on the surface of plants, so they might be moving other things around from plant to plant.

“There could be additional, what we call ecosystem services, that bats provide that we aren’t aware of.” 

Report sightings

The Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative set up a toll-free number to report bat sightings 1-833-434-BATS.

“The hotline has great info on what to do if you have bats in your house, or if you have any health and safety concerns,” Moores says. “They take records of daytime flying bats, because usually there is something off about them. They (also) take notes on any winter sightings.”

Within the province, Moores is hoping to have a web portal up and running by next year so people can provide information on bat sightings.

“Next summer we’re hoping to start a citizen science project where we will get anyone interested in keeping an eye out or anyone who knows about a maternal colony, to contact us,” Moores says. “We’re trying to get accounts and records of where they are, as many maternal colonies as we can.”

“We know we have a good population and we know a lot of them stick around here for the winter, but we don’t know where they go.

Moores said they are hoping to keep tabs on where we know there are maternal colonies.

“So, people who know they have a maternal colony in a cabin, or a barn or old shed, if they are willing to leave them alone, we’d like them to tell us where the sites are and count the bats in them,” she said.

Moores said they have protocol for counting bats as they come out of their maternal roosts.

“We’re looking for a long-term picture,” she said. “We want to roll that out before next summer, have a little portal online where you can download the info on doing a maternal colony count and an e-mail link to send us the info.” 

For now, this winter they are hoping anyone who sees anything unusual on the landscape, any dead bats, will let their local Forestry and Wildlife office know.

Moores recommends that the public shouldn’t handle bats and if they do that they handle them with thick leather gloves.

Bats are known to carry rabies. However, she says her department hasn’t had a case of bat rabies in a very long time. 

White nose syndrome

White nose syndrome is a fungal disease that infects bats when they are hibernating. It is lethal to them.

“It’s a little bit late in the year to be looking at them, but we’re still looking at many of the mortalities to see if they have any signs of white nose syndrome,” according to Shelley Moores, senior manager of Wildlife Research with the province’s department of Fisheries and Land Resources. 

“When they are in their caves in the wintertime, the fungus gets on them,” Moores explains. “It’s transferred both to the surface of the caves and into the bats. It causes wing damage and often it will grow around their face; that’s where you get the white nose name for the disease.

“It causes them to be aroused throughout the winter because it dehydrates them. They wake up quite a bit more frequently then they normally would and that causes further dehydration and burns up a lot of their energy stores,” she said. “Then you will actually find them on the landscape, in late winter, early spring. 

“Even when there is snow on the ground, sometimes you will find a flying bat because they are awake, and they are looking for food and water. They are so dehydrated and emaciated, they don’t survive.”

The disease has a 99 per cent mortality rate for bats.

Diseased bats have been found recently in St. Andrews, Stephenville, Bay St. George area, Steady Brook and Rocky Harbour.

The disease usually starts to spread in the fall when the bats are swarming and looking for mates. It usually takes two years to get a 99 per cent infection rate.

“It hung off the coast of Newfoundland for a while,” Moores says. “Once it hit Nova Scotia, it sort of stopped for a few years.

“We had kind of hoped that it wouldn’t make it across the (Cabot) Strait but there is genetic evidence that the bats do move back and forth. We just didn’t know how frequent that was.” 

She went on to say, “In the fall bats from a bunch of different areas come together and they swarm and that’s when they breed. When they are swarming, that’s when the spores can be exchanged because some of the bats will be going in and out of the hibernation site and bats from other areas can come in and they can contaminate that particular area as well.” 

White nose syndrome started in the north eastern United States and moved into Canada at the rate of approximately 250 kilometres a year. It has crept into bat colonies past the Rockies in the States but has only been found as far west as Ontario in Canada.

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