Disease taking a bite out of bat species

A foreign fungus causes die-off, threatening bats

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 traveller.

Fortunately for Scarborough, no bats within the Rouge Valley park system have been identified with the disease.

Did you know?

  • There are eight different species of bats in Ontario. Little brown bats and big brown bats are the most common ones.
  • One bat can eat three times its weight in insects.
  • The syndrome got the name “white-nose” because some bats have visible rings of white fungus around their faces.
  • The fungus grows on bats while they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines. It seems to irritate the bats and cause them to wake up, which then forces them to use their winter fat stores quicker.
  • White-nose syndrome has killed more than a million bats in the northeastern U.S.
  • There does not appear to be any human health risks associated with white-nose syndrome.
  • As of yet, there is no cure or treatment for the disease.

Source: Ministry of Natural Resources

“But, having said that, there is no one from the Rouge Park staff that has conducted a formal survey or any in-depth monitoring,” 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 has been identified in over 115 caves in North America. It has been detected in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Bats with white-nose syndrome develop patches of white fungus on their muzzles and other exposed skin tissues while they hibernate in the winter.

This fungus makes a bat’s body temperature increase with fever.The high temperature causes a bat to wake up early, burning its stored fat too quickly.The bat is then left weakened and usually dies before the winter ends.

“Bats are an important part of our local ecosystems and the fact that millions are dying is a great concern,” Lawrie said.

Rouge Park’s staff is planning to do some preliminary bat surveys and monitoring when their annual grant money arrives. They plan to conduct what they call a bio blitz in the Rouge Valley in the middle of June, when they will identify as many types of plant and animal species as possible, including bats.

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

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

On June 2 and 3, the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre will also be holding its annual Rouge Valley Eco Exploration event where flora and fauna experts will 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.

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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has requested that anyone entering and exiting a cave decontaminate their clothing and equipment to prevent the fungus from spreading further.

A bat with white-nose syndrome has only a five per cent chance of survival.

“We want to conserve our bat population for the ecosystem and future generations. There is still hope yet,” Lawrie said.