Solution proposed to fight bat disease threat

White-nose syndrome causes large die-offs in bat colonies within two years of the fungus being detected.  |  Cory Olson photo

A probiotic spray may help bats ward off white-nose syndrome infection now that the disease has reached Manitoba

White-nose syndrome can devastate a bat colony and is steadily moving west.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative confirmed cases in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park in March 2019 and in Wasagaming, Man., in May 2019, making these the furthest west conservation specialists have found WNS in Canada.

The spread of the fungus is inevitable, says Cori Lausen, associate research biologist and bat specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. WNS causes large die-offs in bat colonies within two years of the fungus being detected.

After two years of research, while watching the effects of WNS on entire colonies in eastern North America, Lausen says a new probiotic spray might offer the key to giving bats a boost to help them ward off infection.

Lausen says the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada has been the first conservation group to go to the field with a WNS prevention plan, treating two colonies in the metro-Vancouver area.

“We’re hopeful that as of next year we can show that this is working and go more widespread with it, reduce the mortality (rates), and not have the mass die-back we saw in the East.”

The probiotic is sourced from local bats, says Lausen, so they have started in British Columbia because that is where they collected the source bacteria, and specifically the Vancouver area, because of its proximity to the WNS outbreak area in Washington.

Lausen says expanding the probiotic program to other areas, including Manitoba, likely means creating probiotics from scratch using specific bacteria from bats in regionalized locations.

“In our reports and in our publications, what we’re suggesting is that we have established a model that other regions can follow now. They go out and swab local bats, look for ones that exhibit the ability to prevent the growth of the white-nose fungus, and follow the protocol that we did and come up with their own locally sourced probiotic.”

Bats often migrate over hundreds of kilometres to congregate with other bats. Infected bats easily spread the fungus.

“There is a lot of movement that happens on the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) with these bats and they can transfer the spores to new hibernation sites,” says Lausen.

Lausen says the disease looks different in various regions, particularly between Eastern and Western Canada. Lausen hears of massive die-offs in eastern bat colonies, which are often found dead in or around cave sites. In British Columbia, Lausen says bats don’t use cave sites available to them as often. Instead, they use sites that are less accessible to humans, which makes tracking WNS more difficult.

“We’re on the lookout for other types of hibernacula, but in the meantime, we’re not going to see white-nose. We’re not going to look at mouldy bats, we’re not going to encounter piles of dead bats. If we’re paying attention, we are simply going to notice there are fewer and fewer bats on the landscape in the summer.”

Humans could also be playing a role in spreading the disease with bats hitching rides in campers and on long-distance trailers.

When WNS made a leap to Washington state in 2016, conservation groups genetically traced the fungus that appeared on infected bats to colonies in Kentucky.

Raising awareness on the importance of bats is also a vital step in reducing WNS and the unnecessary killing of bats.

In Saskatchewan it was only recently that bats were removed from the vermin list, but the benefits of bats is still little known.

In the West, there are 16 to 17 species of bats with different diets, says Lausen, making them the top predator for nighttime bugs, such as moths, beetles, and mosquitoes.

“I’ve done a fair bit of work in the Prairies looking at long-eared bats and when I feed them grasshoppers, they know exactly what they’re doing,” Lausen said.

The demonization of bats is what pulled at Dana Green’s heartstrings and the reason that the Ph.D. student with the University of Regina’s biology department has made bats the primary focus of her research.

“They’re just such an unloved group of organisms. There’s a lot of negative connotation connected with bats and I think that’s very undeserved. They need to be represented and showed how absolutely amazing they really are, especially to farmers,” says Green.

Bats play an important role as a form of pest control for farmers, and even ranchers, but their importance goes mostly unnoticed, says Lausen.

Green and Lausen agree that more needs to be done for bats, especially in Saskatchewan. While Alberta, British Columbia, and Alaska have government-wide programs in place to locate bat colonies with active or burgeoning community bat programs, Saskatchewan has no provincial programs in place to locate bats.

However, Saskatchewan does have a group of professionals working to fill the gaps in bat research, including Green’s lab, which helps inform the private industry on conservation efforts in the province.

At the inaugural Sask Bats meeting in the spring of 2019, Green says there were representatives from the Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre, Grasslands National Park, the Nature Conservancy, and other researchers from Brigham’s lab. With WNS on Saskatchewan’s doorstep, Green says these relationships between conservation, industry, and policymakers need to continue in order to protect bats.

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