Bats play an essential role in both agriculture and the ecosystems they are found. However, the only flying mammal is facing a severe threat.
White-nose syndrome is a disease that has just arrived in Manitoba and is reducing the numbers of local bat colonies.
The fungal infection has had catastrophic impacts on certain bat species, and scientists are participating in studies to learn more about its effects and how to protect these animals.
It's believed the fungus was transported accidentally from Europe to North America in 2006. Since that time, Dr. Craig K. R. Willis Professor of Biology at the University of Winnipeg says it has spread from New York State across Eastern North America and has jumped the Rocky Mountains, killing millions of bats in its wake.
Bats are fascinating creatures, says Willis. They're the only mammal to evolve flight under their power, live a long time, over 30 years in the wild, and have low reproductive rates. Scientists still don't have a full grasp of a bat's biology, which is one reason to study them. Another is the vital role they serve in ecosystems and the economy.
"We don't have a great handle on the dollar value of bats for agriculture or forestry here in Manitoba, but we know in other parts of North America they eat a whole lot of pests. Certainly, the best evidence comes from Southern Indiana. Folks have excluded bats from corn crops at night with big nets, and when you exclude bats from feeding on insects over the corn crops, you see a massive increase in damage in corn from pests," says Willis.
This scales to potentially billions of dollars in damage to the American corn industry. Although these experiments haven't been performed in Manitoba, he says populations of local bats are probably too small to cause that sort of dent, but they can't be entirely sure.
Willis says studying bats can be incredibly tricky, as scientists don't know where most of Manitoba's bats are living. That's where the 'Neighbourhood Bat Watch' comes in, a citizen science website, where civilians can report bat sightings.
"It's great if people can go to batwatch.ca and report known colonies of bats, places they can see bats flying out of some kind of structure. Also useful for us is if people report unusual behaviour of bats in winter, and one of the things that happen with WNS is bats emerge from their hibernation site. If you see bats flying around in January, February, March that's unusual behaviour, and we're probably talking about WNS." Click here to see more...