World Wildlife Day: Bats need the Boreal

March 3, 2016

Local conservation group and researcher call to protect forest habitats of imperiled
insect-eating bats


March 3, 2016

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and a local wildlife expert are calling for protection of the boreal forest in Manitoba as a critical measure to ensure the survival of endangered little brown (Myotis lucifugus) and northern long-eared bats (Myotis septentrionalis).

The groups hope that by ringing the warning bells on World Wildlife Day – being celebrated globally today—that they will help draw more attention to the plight of the two species.  According to Dr. Craig Willis, a biologist and bat researcher from the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba has a great opportunity to assist these two species embattled by a deadly fungus.

“The Boreal forest of Manitoba is prime habitat for bats because of the large numbers of limestone caves that provide the relative constant temperature and humidity which the bats need during winter hibernation. The trees also offer necessary summer roosting habitat, especially for forest-dependent northern long-eared bats.” explains Dr. Willis.

White nose syndrome (WNS), the fungal disease introduced to eastern North America a decade ago adds urgency to Willis’ research. The disease has decimated hibernating bat populations in eastern North America in what is thought to be one of the fastest declines of any wild mammal in history. It is expected to reach Manitoba in 1-3 years.

Voracious insectivores, bats are important players in a healthy ecosystem and provide significant benefits for agriculture. Their pest consumption value in Canada could be in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. So far at least 7 million bats have been killed by WNS. As each of these animals could have eaten up to a kilogram of insects each summer, this means as much as 7000 tonnes of insects are no longer being eaten by bats in North America each year. 

Willis hopes to determine if the few bats that have survived hibernation with WNS carry heritable resistance traits that can be passed on to their offspring. ‘If that’s the case, these resistant individuals could be the key to the recovery of these species after WNS sweeps through.’

Protecting high quality summer habitat in the boreal forest becomes even more critical for reproductive success of survivors. “Mother bats need great summer roosting habitat in forest, as well as other bats from their colony to help them warm up their roosts and successfully raise their pups. This is especially true for survivors of WNS because they emerge from hibernation in poor condition having lost many of their colony-mates to the disease”.

“Quite simply, if we ensure their winter and summer boreal habitats are secure, we maximize the opportunity for individuals to survive and rebuild the populations,” said Ron Thiessen, executive director of CPAWS’ Manitoba chapter. “Protecting habitat for bats also serves to protect the boreal’s services as the world’s largest source of unfrozen fresh water and to maintain its huge carbon stores, which help to slow global climate change.”

In 2014, one important bat hibernation area received protection through collaborative efforts between Misipawistik Cree Nation and the province. The announcement helped raise the profile of the plight of bats in Manitoba though more awareness and action is needed.  

Dr. Willis is asking Manitobans to visit to report colonies of bats in buildings or trees and to learn more information about bats and how to protect them. Identifying these sites is critically important for recovery efforts.

For more information and interviews:
Dr. Craig Willis [email protected] .
Ron Thiessen (204) 794-4971 [email protected].

Photo: In the boreal forest of Manitoba, Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) hibernating in Microwave Cave. Image courtesy of the Willis Bat Lab.

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