Fungal disease threatening bat population nears Okanagan

Fungal disease threatening bat population nears Okanagan

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Bat specialist Cori Lausen holds the wings of a healthy female California myotis. (Richard McGuire photo)

Okanagan Valley bat populations might be facing dire peril after the surprise discovery of a deadly fungal bat disease in Washington.

Recently, a Little Brown Bat found outside Seattle was discovered to have died from White-Nose Syndrome (WNS).

The fungus has been devastating bat populations in eastern North America, and since its discovery in New York in 2006, has been slowly spreading across the continent.

Researchers and wildlife conservation officers have been planning for the seemingly inevitable arrival of the fungus in B.C., but according to Dr. Cori Lausen, a bat specialist based in the province, the fungus’ arrival in Washington likely means WNS will soon show up in the Okanagan.

“The likelihood of bats migrating seasonally between [the] coast and inland is high, and so we’d expect WNS to arrive in the BC interior shortly,” she recently explained in an email.

Lausen did note, however, that bat migration and breeding patterns in the B.C. Interior aren’t well understood, so “it’s hard to say if this will be weeks or years.”

White-Nose Syndrome is so scary because of intensity and severity with which it can wipe out entire bat colonies.

The fungus infects bats while they hibernate, essentially sending a “root system” into their skin and feeding on the animal’s skin tissue. This invasion causes bats to wake up multiple times through the winter, interrupting the hibernation process and effectively starving them to death.

The white spores at the top of those invading “roots” are the visible manifestation of the fungus and dead bats are often found with a white ring around their nose, which is how the fungus earned its moniker.

Margaret Holm is the program co-ordinator of the Okanagan Community Bat Program. She explained that if (or likely when) the disease finds its way to the Okanagan, the impact could be very significant.

“Likely one of our most common bats (little brown bat) would be possibly severely affected,” she said.

While bats are an integral part of the ecosystem, eating zounds of small insects each year – a little brown bat can eat as many as 1,000 mosquitos in an hour – they also potentially play a very significant role in battling agricultural pests.

Lausen said studies focused on bats’ impact in the Okanagan are scarce, but that work done in other parts of the world suggests bats are “critical for natural control of forestry and agricultural pests.”

She pointed to research by Dr. Gary McCracken that found the economic impact of bat loss in North America could cost anywhere from $3.7 to $53 billion a year.

Keeping all that in mind, Holm said she and others in the Okanagan Community Bat Program are working overtime to try and better map out what the bat population looks like here, in the hopes that more information can help scientists curb the spread of the disease.

“Now that WNS has been confirmed in Washington, it’s increased the urgency to work with landowners so we can do counts,” she said, referring to the bat counts the group has been trying to organize across the Okanagan.

She asked anyone who knows of colonies on their properties to contact officials with the bat program so they can arrange for a count.

She also asked anyone who finds a dead bat to contact the bat program so the dead animal can be collected and tested for WNS.

To contact the Okanagan Community Bat Program, see www.bcbats.ca, email okanagan@bcbats.ca or call 1-855-922-2287 extension 13.

By Trevor Nichols

Little brown myotis showing fungus on face and wings. (M. Moriarty, US Fish & Wildlife Service, photo)
Little brown myotis showing fungus on face and wings. (M. Moriarty, US Fish & Wildlife Service, photo)

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