A deadly disease could be infiltrating Alberta’s bat population.
After gathering samples from 800 bridges across the province, researchers have found fungus along the Red Deer River that can cause White Nose Syndrome, which is potentially fatal in bats.
“It eats away at their skin. These bats need to come out of hibernation to fight that infection and it takes a lot of energy to do that,” said Cory Olson, a program coordinator with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada’s Alberta bat program, who was part of the research.
“They need to warm up their body. They end up depleting their fat stores before the onset of spring when they can find food again.
“Now that we have the fungus, we’re going to start to see these deaths within a year or two, if they’re not already happening.”
The fungus itself hasn’t been confirmed in the province yet, but Olson says once fungus is found White Nose Syndrome typically appears within a couple years.
“(In 2021) we confirmed the presence the fungus in Saskatchewan and then in 2022 Parks Canada staff confirmed White Nose Syndrome in Saskatchewan,” Olson said.
“We’ve observed over 90 per cent declines elsewhere in North America, so we expect to see fairly significant declines in our bats. But we need to confirm that to better understand what toll this fungus will have in our bats.”
If bat populations decline, experts say the province will be losing a top pest control specialist.
Much like their superhero counterpart Batman, Alberta’s nine species of bats do their work at night eating bugs that can damage trees and crops.
“They’re feeding on things like mosquitoes and moths, and eat a huge amount of insects we consider to be pests,” said Jessica Deacon-Rogers, education program coordinator with the Helen Schuler Nature Centre.
“One little brown bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour.”
Experts say that pest control can pay off in other ways.
“An early study from about ten years ago, demonstrated about $3.7 billion in benefits from bats to agriculture in North America,” said Everett Hanna, an instructor in Lethbridge College’s faculty of environmental sciences.
“They occupy a relatively unique niche — they’re nighttime insectivores.”
“There aren’t really many other mammals or birds that are doing quite the same amount of capturing insects at night. So when we lose bats… at least in the 90 per cent magnitude range, there’s likely to be — and has been demonstrated in some cases — great increases in those insect populations, and most notably (insects) that have impacts on crop production.”
Experts are hoping the situation becomes clearer once bats begin emerging from hibernation in the spring.