Around dusk on a balmy July night, tiny winged animals fly through the vanishing sky over Vancouver’s Vanier Park. Armed with a headlamp strapped to his forehead, bat researcher Aaron Aguirre rubs his gloved hands together in delight.
“Oh, I love this,” she says, her smile still clear behind her black mask. “I love getting my hands on bats.”
Aguirre, 29, is part of a specialized team spending the summer gathering more information about the city’s urban bat population to protect the mammals, and its billion-dollar benefit to the economy, as one of North America’s deadliest wildlife diseases comes closer to shore.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are capturing bats in at least 20 city parks so they can be tracked and tested for white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease caused by a fungus that feeds on the snout, ears and wings of hibernating bats.
White Nose Syndrome Detected in Kootenays
This summer, they need to collect baseline information so they have a starting point from which to track losses and potentially initiate preventative treatments should white nose syndrome come to town.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in bat guano, or bat droppings, in the Kootenays, British Columbia, earlier this year.
The condition burns the fat bats need to get through the winter, leaving them to starve or freeze to death. Mammals can also wake up too early because the fuzz for which the disease is named is just plain uncomfortable, like trying to sleep with a bad case of athlete’s foot all over your nose.
The disease, which spreads rapidly among huddled bats, can wipe out up to 98 percent of any bat population.
“It was devastating to see,” said Jordi Segers, Canada’s national coordinator for white-nose syndrome, recalling an outbreak that killed most of Nova Scotia’s bat population nearly a decade ago.
“We were literally walking over dead bodies when we entered the cave. There were just thousands of dead bats lying on the ground.”
Natural Pest Control Worth Billions
Preserving the bat population is essential to the economy and environment in BC Mammals are pollinators and insect eaters capable of devouring half their weight in insects, including mosquitoes, in a single night. Its natural pest control saves Canada’s agricultural and forestry sectors billions each year, according to Parks Canada.
Despite its benefits, little research is available on urban bat populations.
At Vanier Park, the team wears face masks and rubber gloves to prevent any chance of infecting bats with COVID-19.
They trap bats in nets so fine that it is difficult for humans to see them with the naked eye. Most of the bats in Vancouver are small brown bats, fast nocturnal animals that weigh as much as a plastic credit card. They like to perch on human-made structures, but the species is now considered endangered due to its susceptibility to white nose syndrome.
Once captured, the delicate animals are measured, weighed and sampled. They are also milked to confirm if they are lactating females.
The largest bats are tagged with small radio telemetry tags to track their movement and track where they sleep during the day.
“I would say it’s quite urgent,” said Matthew Mitchell of UBC’s School of Land and Food Systems, referring to the ongoing research.
“Especially here, where bats and particularly urban bats are pretty understudied, we really want to understand what these populations are like, what their ecology is like, where they spend their time before we start seeing bats with white-nose syndrome.”
White nose syndrome first appeared in North America in 2006 in New York state, likely via shipping. It is primarily transmitted from bat to bat, although humans may play a role by carrying spores on their clothing or equipment. There is no cure for the disease, but there are preventative treatments.
“It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen if we lose bat species. There’s a lot of other things going on in urban landscapes, climate change, people changing the landscape, all that kind of stuff,” Mitchell said.
“But I would also be very sad if there were no bats.”