Environment

‘Too close to home’: bats across the Island face a looming threat that has devastated bats elsewhere

A deadly fungal disease has been identified just 100km away from the Island

by Aaron Guillen
May 11, 2021
Environment

‘Too close to home’: bats across the Island face a looming threat that has devastated bats elsewhere

A deadly fungal disease has been identified just 100km away from the Island

by Aaron Guillen
May 11, 2021
Janet Gray has been working to count and protect bats in the Metchosin Community Hall. Photo: Submitted
Environment

‘Too close to home’: bats across the Island face a looming threat that has devastated bats elsewhere

A deadly fungal disease has been identified just 100km away from the Island

by Aaron Guillen
May 11, 2021
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‘Too close to home’: bats across the Island face a looming threat that has devastated bats elsewhere
Janet Gray has been working to count and protect bats in the Metchosin Community Hall. Photo: Submitted

A pungent smell hit Janet Gray’s nose as she climbed into the attic of the Metchosin Community Hall. Dressed in overalls, masks and other protective gear, the Metchosin resident slowly stepped through the dark room with a small headlamp guiding her way. Tucked away in the rafters she spotted bats—hundreds of them. Turning around, she realized they were all around her. The grand display of nature living inside of a man-made structure wasn’t the only thing that took her breath away—the scent of guano caked all over the ground brought her back to reality.

“That was my first time seeing a bat up close,” said Gray, who had spotted the hordes of bats flying past her home just weeks before in the summer of 2015. She ended up telling her friend who worked at Victoria’s Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT), a land trust that conserves nature on the South Island. 

“The two of us went up there to investigate and discovered that it was a huge maternal colony. It’s such a special place, ‘cause that’s where the babies are born.” 

The small creatures were wrapped up in their wings and hanging upside down less than an inch apart. As it was in the middle of the day, most of the bats were fast asleep. According to HAT, there are around 1,500 bats living in the community hall alone.

Over the following months, Gray and her friend from HAT would return to set up cameras to observe the bats for research purposes, install audio devices to hear their chirps, and clean up mounds of bat poop.

But only a few years after this colony was discovered in Metchosin, the safe haven is under threat by a disease that has the potential to wipe out the majority of the bat population across southern Vancouver Island and the rest of the province for good. 

Six million dead bats and counting

In February 2006, a bat was photographed in a cave nearby Albany, New York with white fuzz on its nose. The fuzz was a fungus, a deadly one that kills between 90 to 100% of bats it infects North America.

Dubbed as white-nose syndrome (WNS), the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructan latches itself onto a bat and the white fuzz spreads to its nose, ears, wings, and sometimes the tail too. 

WNS ends up chipping away at bats’ health, as they have to spend a chunk of their hibernation period awake, grooming the fungus to prevent it from spreading across their body. By doing this, the bats burn up fat that is needed to survive during the winter. If dehydration and starvation isn’t inevitable, the skin on their wings can get wrinkled, flaky, and thin and the fungus can cause respiratory problems. WNS can only be spread amongst bats and studies show the fungus only grows between 5 to 20°C. By 2016 the fungal disease was estimated to have killed more than six million bats in North America.

Notably, bats across Europe and Asia are able to tolerate the fungus, in which they don’t end up killing entire colonies at a time. Although it can’t be traced back to an exact moment, researchers believe WNS was introduced to North American bats for the first time in New York, originating somewhere in Europe. 

After the initial sighting in 2006, WNS spread throughout the eastern half of North America’s bat population. By 2010, it had jumped the border, killing bats in southern Ontario and Quebec. But the alarm bells rang loud for BC bat researchers in 2016 when a local species, the little brown bat, was found infected with WNS in the Seattle area.

‘It’s too close to home’

When Mandy Kellner heard about the confirmed infected bat in Washington, her greatest fears inched closer to reality. 

“Bats move around and migrate; that’s a given,” says the provincial coordinator of the BC Community Bat program. “We thought we would have several more years to continue much-needed research as it spread from the East Coast, but it jumped over here quickly. It’s too close to home. It’s a real concern for bats on the southern part of the Island.”

Since 2016, WNS has crept over to the city of Everett, which is 20 kilometres closer to Greater Victoria. Currently, the distance between the two cities is around 100 kilometres as the crow flies, (or rather the bat). In comparison, the confirmed case in Seattle was more than 2,000 kilometres from the previous western-most location, just the year before. 

Of all provinces and territories across Canada, BC has the most bat diversity, with 16 different identified species. Within the southern part of the Island, there are nine species of bats. Gray says Metchosin’s community hall is home to both Yuma bats and little brown bats, which have both been detected with WNS across the water in Washington.

Experts say by 2026, little brown bats could be completely wiped out of eastern North America. In a 2013 study, researchers estimated the entire Canadian bat population would likely be infected within 12 to 18 years, as most species have a travel range of 200 to 250 kilometres per year.

Kellner says they haven’t confirmed the spread of white nose syndrome in BC yet, but they are regularly testing bats for the disease. When it comes to a cure, there are preliminary findings that point to UV light as a means of damaging the deadly fungus. But there is still more research to be completed, as researchers have to understand any unintended effects the exposure may cause to live bats with WNS. 

Facts vs. fears

Kellner admits she gets a good chuckle when people call her asking where they can move within the province to a place that doesn’t have bats. 

“I think we paint bats with a broad stroke,” she says. “There’s this sort of adverseness to being around bats because of a fear of rabies or COVID. I think a majority of it comes from the fear of the unknown.”

Kellner points out that WNS cannot be spread from bats to humans, but rabies can. Even then, bats make up a sliver of rabies cases at all. According to WHO, dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths, with 99% of transmissions coming from them. 

Notably, WNS can be spread from humans to bats, as the fungus can be carried through spores on clothing or equipment. The best way to prevent these cross-contaminations is by avoiding bringing equipment or clothing from WNS hot-spots to places where BC bats naturally live, such as caves. Alternatively, if you find a dead bat, you’re asked to call 1-855-922-2287 and note the location, time, and day you found one. 

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Kellner says educating people about what bats contribute to the ecosystem is still needed. She points out that on top of their guano being great fertilizer, bats are key predators for insects, including mosquitos, beetles and moths. In addition, bats are integral to the agricultural industry. According to a 2011 US study, bats are estimated to provide roughly $22.9 billion worth of “ecosystem services” to the agricultural industry every year, due to reduced costs of pesticides that aren’t needed to repel the insects that bats end up eating. 

Gray, who lives behind the Metchosin hall, says that she can’t recall seeing as much as a single mosquito since she moved into the neighbourhood decades ago. 

“When I first found out about the bats at the hall, I started asking around if anyone knew about them and soon found out that the residents wanted to keep it quiet,” Gray tells Capital Daily

“The community organizers didn’t want word getting out because they thought people would cancel their bookings for events at the hall. Luckily, the attic is completely blocked off from the rest of the hall, so there are no worries there. With help from HAT, we’ve really come together over the past few years. We’ve essentially become the guardians of these bats.”

Counting bats

Every June, the BC annual bat count takes place across the province. One of them takes place at Metchosin Community Hall. 

There are one or two counts held in June before the pups are born, then another in late July to early August to count the pups that are starting to fly around. This is done to estimate the number of babies that were born to the local population. Last year, 15 counts were held across the Greater Victoria region. 

Gray has participated in most of the ones at the hall since it started in 2016, and says all you have to do is bring a camping chair, a tally counter (on your phone or physical), and a keen eye. Between 10 to 15 minutes after sunset, Gray says the bats begin flying out like clockwork. She compares the sound of the bats flying around to the light slapping of leather. 

Gray pointed out that residents have built and installed bat houses, which also can hold bats during the summer months. In late April, Wild Wise Society built 24 bat boxes, a makeshift home where bats can roost during the day, similar to the Metchosin community hall. Sam Webb, a spokesperson for Wild Wise, told Capital Daily the project was a joint effort with the Sooke Pathfinders to actively combat lost habitat areas for bats due to development in Sooke and the Westshore. The houses will be donated to the District of Sooke to hang out in parks for the annual bat count.

“The whole thing is magical,” says Kellner. “There is so much anticipation in the air. It’s such a great opportunity to see something that you’ve never seen before.” 

From April to October, the bats will stay at the community hall. Then, when winter arrives, the bats will leave to hibernate in various parts of the province, from caves, to abandoned mines, or deep crevices in rocks. 

“It’s neat that the province is monitoring this situation, but it’s tough to watch,” says Gray, quietly. “There’s nothing that we can really do to stop [white nose syndrome] from coming this way. It’s so important to be aware of what we have even if we’re going to lose it.”

Nonetheless, the Metchosin resident will eagerly await the upcoming bat count, holding out hope that the bats who call Metchosin community hall home will return once again from hibernation safe and sound.

Want to find out more? Click to see where white-nose syndrome is spreading through North America in this interactive map

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