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B.C. bat experts look for clues to massive die-off

Got bats? Do you know where they might be hanging out? Have you noticed any that look sick or have been flying around during the day? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the B.C. government wants to hear from you.
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White Nose Syndrome is an often-fatal fungal bat disease expected to arrive in B.C. within a decade.

Got bats?

Do you know where they might be hanging out?

Have you noticed any that look sick or have been flying around during the day?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, the B.C. government wants to hear from you.

The province’s bat experts are racing against time to understand how bats spend their winters on the West Coast, so researchers can better protect them against White Nose Syndrome, a deadly fungal disease expected to arrive here within the next five to 10 years.

“The problem in B.C. is that we don’t know what bats do in the winter,” said Purnima Govindarajulu, a small-mammal specialist with the Ministry of Environment. “We don’t know where they go, where they’re hibernating.”

It’s thought that they hole up in caves and mines, although there is also suspicion that some take up residence in buildings.

“So we need a lot of eyes out there looking,” Govindarajulu said. “We want the public to know that if they see a bat flying around in the winter or they’ve seen groups of bats in the winter, please let us know.”

The government says more than six million bats have died from White Nose Syndrome in 22 states and five provinces east of Manitoba since the disease was discovered in New York seven years ago.

Named for the fuzzy white growth that appears on the nose, ears and wings of infected bats, the disease attacks bats during their hibernation period and racks up a kill rate of 80 to 100 per cent in affected locations.

“Right now, we’re faced with extirpations,” said Cori Lausen, a bat specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. “We could potentially lose species. If not, for sure, we’re going to be losing bats in certain areas of the province.”

She said the decimation of bat populations could have a significant impact on forestry and agriculture industries because the animals consume vast quantities of night-time insects that feed on trees and crops.

“We’ve been embracing this organic movement and that only works if we have natural pest control,” Lausen said. “So if we lose a big chunk of our bats ... we’re going to notice the effect.”

Researchers hope to gain a better understanding of bat behaviour, so they can delay the spread of White Nose Syndrome and reduce its heavy mortality rate.

“We’re at the point of desperation, to tell you the truth,” said Lausen. “We need to learn stuff about our bats in the winter and we need to learn it fast.”

Anyone who spots a bat during the winter is asked to call provincial biologists at 250-387-9500.

Researchers are particularly interested in speaking with people who have noticed bats flying during the day in winter, have information about possible winter roosting sites or have discovered dead or dying bats.

More material on White Nose Syndrome is available on the Ministry of Environment website. The government also has posted decontamination protocols for geologists, surveyors, miners and explorers in an effort to prevent them from bringing the disease to B.C. from caves or mines in eastern North America.

lkines@timescolonist.com