Friday, 26 August 2011 15:20

Bat study to provide valuable information

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By Susan Quinlan
Waterton Lakes National Park
Every summer, Parks Canada staff at Waterton take on different research projects, but some may say this year they’ve gone batty; that is, researchers there, along with others in Glacier National Park, are undertaking a study to determine species type and population numbers of bats found in that region, given a fungal threat migrating westward that may prove devastating.

“Two main reasons we’re doing the study; we really don’t know much about bats and we want to know what kinds of species are there,” said Barb Johnston, wildlife biologist for Parks Canada.

“A fungal disease arrived in eastern North America, Ontario, and the equivalent geographic location in the United States, and they’re scrambling to do more research on it. The impacts are huge because it spreads through contact and spore transfer.

“Those most at risk live in huge congregations in huge caves.”

In western North America the congregations are not so large, so the effect of the disease is expected to be less here, said Johnston.

However, Johnston added, because the predominant species here,  known as little brown bats, are being devastated out east, the west definitely needs to be concerned.

“Some of the species we have here are on the edge of their range, so given this new threat, it’s best we learn about species location and presence, and activity levels,” creating a baseline so a negative impact can be detected early.

A species living at the edge of its range, explained Johnston, means what they need environmentally is just supplied, given that the Rocky Mountains cut off any additional resources.

“Throw one more thing at them and they might not be able to cope.”

The main point though, said Johnston, is researchers know very little about the bats and the occurrence of this deadly fungi has prompted researchers to find out more.

The study of bats does, however, present a couple of problems, said Johnston, as they’re nocturnal and as well because bat species are difficult to tell apart.

Researchers are therefore engaging in two strategies. The first is called mist netting, where they erect a slack vertical net made of extremely fine micro fibre along the flyways of bats, catching them when they go out to hunt at night.

“We take them in hand to tell if they’re male or female, pregnant, …”

The netting is very loose so no harm comes to the bats, said Johnston, and once they’re assessed they’re immediately released.

The second approach involves recording the clicking sound bats emit to echolocate their prey. Researchers download the recorded sound for analysis by a computer which subsequently identifies the species.

The study is currently set to run for a single year, but Johnston hopes it will be extended for an additional year. Both Glacier and Waterton National Parks are involved and need to run the study for a set number of nights to collect enough data for analysis, and as well they need to do so before the bats migrate, so there are time constraints, explained Johnston.

“We’ll leave acoustic detectors out through the fall, to monitor migratory behaviour although not all bats migrate. We also want to know if they’re hibernating here.”

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