Foreign fungus causes rapid die-off of bat population

More than five million bats have been killed in Eastern Canada and the United States in recent years, due to a disease called white-nose syndrome. The culprit: a European fungus that more than likely arrived in North America on the boots of an unsuspecting traveler.

“Bats are an important part of our local ecosystems, and the fact that millions are dying is a great concern,” said David Lawrie, program director at the Rouge Valley Foundation.

The disease was first found in a cave in Schoharie County, N.Y., in 2006. Its spread is rapid, and as of 2010 the fungus had been identified in over 115 caves in North America. Currently, it has been detected in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well.

We want to conserve our bat populations for the ecosystem and future generations. There is still hope yet.

— David Lawrie

White-nose syndrome causes bats to develop patches of white fungus on their muzzles and other exposed skin tissue while they hibernate in the winter.

This fungus makes bats very ill, and their body temperatures increase with fever. The high temperatures cause the bats to wake up early and burn their stored fat too quickly. They are left weakened and usually die before the winter ends.

Fortunately for Scarborough’s bat population, no one has identified any bats within the Rouge Valley park system that have the disease.

“But having said that, there is no one from the Rouge Park staff that have conducted a formal survey or any indepth monitoring,” said Lawrie.

However, the park staff is planning to do some preliminary bat surveys and monitoring when their grant money for this year comes in.  They are helping to conduct a “Bio Blitz” in the Rouge Valley in the middle of June, where they will identify as many types of plant and animal species as possible, including the bat.

Lawrie believes the blitz will help them learn about the health and population status of the local bat.

“Once we have some broad-scale data on the bats’ population and distribution within the valley system, we will focus more specifically on strategies that will help protect them,” said Lawrie.

On June 2 and 3, the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre will be holding its annual Rouge Valley Eco Exploration event where a variety of flora and fauna experts will be present to talk about the ecology and life histories of various species.

For the past two years there has been a bat expert present at the event.

“She [Jacqueline Miller] is very knowledgeable and will talk in detail about the white-nose syndrome,” said Lawrie.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has requested that people decontaminate their clothing and equipment prior to entering and immediately after they exit a cave, to try to further prevent the spread of the fungus.

Currently, there is no treatment for bats with the disease, and no means of stopping its transmission from bat to bat. A bat with white-nose syndrome has only a five per cent chance of survival.

“We have been working closely with our bat experts and shall continue this work for coming years,” said Lawrie. “We want to conserve our bat populations for the ecosystem and future generations. There is still hope yet.”