Government and researchers prepare for arrival of deadly fungus known as white-nose syndrome

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Halloween is just around the corner, and bats are often viewed as the creatures of the night that symbolize this time of year.

But since 2009, parts of Canada have seen less of this spooky species because of a fungus known as white-nose syndrome – a distinctive fungal growth around the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats.

This fungus is responsible for the death of more than seven million bats in eastern Canada and the United States, with a fatality rate as high as 99 per cent, according to Government of Alberta environment and sustainable resource development.

Robert Barclay, head of the department of biological sciences at the University of Calgary, says humans cannot be infected with the fungus. However, the death of bats will impact the balance of the eco system – not to mention the increase of pesky insects, as “little brown bats eat almost half their body weight everyday in mosquitoes,” Barclay says.

He also added that white-nose syndrome is not currently active in Alberta, but precautionary measures are being taken to prevent an outbreak in the province.

Barclay identifies three main species that are particularly at risk to this fungus – two of which make up the main population of bats in Alberta. DH33635 s e resize copyWhite Nose Syndrome is identified by a fungal growth on the muzzles of bats.

Photo courtesy of Dave Hobson

The top three affected species are:

1) Little brown bat
2) Northern long-eared bat
3) Tricolored Bat

The little brown bat is the most common species in Alberta, and occupies 80 per cent of the bat population in Calgary.

What is white-nose syndrome?

White-nose syndrome is a fungus that can succeed in cold temperatures and wet environments. These conditions make species that hibernate in the winter, like little brown bats, susceptible to the side effects.

Dave Hobson, wildlife biologist for the Alberta government, says the fungus invades the skin tissue of bats during hibernation. This invasion disrupts the sleeping process, resulting in energy loss, dehydration, starvation and eventually death.

He says many characteristics of the fungus and species responses to it are still being identified. Although white-nose syndrome cannot infect humans, it is likely that cave-visiting humans can transfer spores to hibernation sites. Bat to bat is likely the most common form of transmission, but the exact details are still being determined through research.

What is being done?

Hobson describes Alberta’s current proactive measures. Some of these include:

-Closing all known hibernation sites in national and provincial parks
-Decontamination policies for all bat researchers and those handling bats
-Increasing awareness and education about the status of white-nose syndrome

A plan of action and list of closed caves is available through Alberta environment and sustainable resource development, on the white-nose syndrome information page.

 DH33639-97s resizeAlthough the cause of transfer is still unknown, Alberta researchers are preparing for the arrival of white-nose syndrom in Alberta’s bat population.

Photo courtesy of Dave Hobson According to the Government of Alberta website, a variety of research teams are working towards a solution. Studies of the fungus, the bats behaviors and human involvement are all necessary towards the process of understanding white-nose syndrome.

Hobson remains positive towards the task at hand.

“The longer we can delay the spread of the disease, the greater the chance researchers can develop effective treatment and containment options before it arrives in Alberta,” he says.

Barclay has a number of science students starting data collection through the University of Calgary.

“There are fungi specialists studying the fungus, and we are specifically focusing on the bat side of things. Once there is more understood, more precautionary measures can be planned,” he says.

Want to know more?

Barclay says additional funding and awareness will help research move along, as it’s unknown when the syndrome could hit Alberta. He adds that the little brown bat, and the northern long-eared bat have been requested to list as endangered species.

“This would certainly help our cause,” he says, as it would increase both awareness and government grants. The request has been filed over a year ago and there has still been no response, Barclay added.

In the meantime, plenty of resources have been made available. More information about the affects of white-nose syndrome and suggested precautions is available on the Government of Alberta website from the Alberta Bat Action team.

Still want to learn about this spooky species? Cindy Kam of the Calgary Zoo and Friends of Fish Creek Provincial Park Society is presenting a free bat learning session on Oct. 18 in the Environmental Learning Centre. The location is accessible by 130th Avenue and 37th Street S.W. and the event runs from 7 p.m. until 8 p.m.

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