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Helping our winged friends

The bat population in Nova Scotia is in trouble. But families can help

By Jesse O’Halloran

 

Three or four years ago, when the sun would set at my grandparents’ cottage on Cobequid Bay, the bats would swoop overhead as we lit the campfire. My grandmother always worried the bats would get caught in her hair. But that’s a myth. And l loved to watch them. Then one summer, the bats were gone.

There used to be 300,000 bats in Nova Scotia. But since White-nose Syndrome first appeared in Nova Scotia in 2011, 95 per cent of the bat population has died. I started to wonder about what I could do to help.

I met with Andrew Hebda, curator of zoology at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax. He’s studied bats since 1972.

“Anywhere you see birds flying in the daytime, that’s where you will see bats flying at night,” Hebda says. “We monitor where they feed, how they feed, how they use sound.”

Here are some cool facts that Andrew Hebda told me about bats:

•  They live for roughly 40 years.

•  Bats eat 95 tonnes of insects a year.

•  In the food chain, the small brown bats you see around here feed on insects—mosquitos and micromoths. “They actually are carnivores, is what they are,” Hebda says.

•  In the summer, you rarely find any boy bats. “It’s almost always female bats. We really don’t know where the boys go,” Hebda says. 

•  A bat weighs as much as a loonie.

•  A female bat will eat half of her weight in insects a night.

Hebda showed me two bats he collected that died of White-nose Syndrome. They looked just like the bats I saw at the cottage. I found it very fascinating and interesting to learn about this.

White-nose Syndrome is caused by a fungus. The spores cause lesions on the bats’ skin. The syndrome is named for its appearance on the bats’ muzzles and wings. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the disease was brought over from Europe, showing up in New York in 2006 or 2007. The spores get into caves where bats hibernate.

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Some samples of bat species from the Museum of Natural History in Halifax.

Bats hibernate for five, six, or even seven months. Just like bears, they store fat. They drop their body temperature to match the air around them.

“Every time they warm up, they use a bit of that fat,” Hebda says. “If something wakes them up more often, they use all the fat.”

The disease wakes up the bats even more, making them use up all of their fat. Researchers don’t know why some of the bats survive. Hebda said some researchers are looking at why some of the bats don’t die. Are they immune to the fungus? Or maybe they don’t wake up as easily in the winter as other bats do?

I asked Mr. Hebda what’s being done to help cure bats. He said there are surveys to see how many bats live in a particular area. There used to be 17,000 bats in a cave in Maple Grove. That’s across the water from my cottage on Cobequid Bay.

“Once the fungus gets into a cave, or a mine, when hibernation starts, you can’t get rid of it,” Hebda says. “You’d have to sterilize it and that would kill everything.”

So the first thing you should know is stay out of mines and caves where bats might be resting. It’s not the bats spreading disease; it’s people spreading the fungus when they go exploring in caves.

“If you want to be observing an animal, you don’t want to do them any harm,” Hebda says. “What we recommend normally is, if people see bats, don’t disturb them.”

And there are things we can do.

You could put up a bat house. We have one at our house. But no bats live there yet.

You can find lots more information at canada.wsc.org. The Wildlife Conservation Society will give you lots of options to help, you can donate or volunteer and don’t forget to spread the word!

If you see a bat call the Department of Natural Resources at 1-888-565-2224. Tell them where you saw the bat.

Hebda says it takes a very long time for bats to reproduce. They only have one pup a year, which means it could not even be in our lifetime that we see the bat population grow again.

I sure hope that I will be able to see more bats at the cottage, even though it might not happen until I’m an adult.     

Jesse O’Halloran is in Grade 6. She is an aunt, and loves animals and drawing, hiking, and swimming. 

 

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