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Bats in Trouble

November 30, 2010

Big Brown Bat

We don’t know as much about bats as we should, and often what we do “know” is wrong. Professor Craig Willis of the University of Winnipeg is trying to change that. But he’s up against a mountain of opposition. Pop culture is his biggest enemy.
That’s probably why he objects to being called “The Bat Man”. Silly, teenage myths don’t help. Promoting bats as bloodthirsty, hair-grabbing, vampire-friendly, rabies-ridden monsters is just wrong.
Because of our boreal forests and limestone caves, Manitoba is a good place for bats. Of our six species, three are migratory (Hoary, Eastern Red, and Silver-haired Bats) and three are hibernating (Little Brown, Big Brown and Northern Bats). Both groups are in serious trouble but for different reasons.
Wind farms are killing migratory bats; those giant wind turbines cropping up everywhere are more of a threat to bats than to birds. Prof. Willis has discovered that bats that travel through the prairies, especially in the fall, are attracted to tall structures like wind turbines (also radio towers) during migration. Hundreds of thousands of dead bats have been discovered near them over the past ten years or so. With blades that spin at fourteen times per minute (or 210 kilometers – 140 miles — per hour at the tips) bat deaths are caused not just by collisions but from decompression of the flying mammals’ lungs as well.
Hibernating, non-migratory bats are dying at alarming rates in Quebec, Ontario, and the northeastern US. In the past four years over one million bats have died from White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus that affects bats’ ability to survive hibernation. This is perhaps the fastest decline of a wildlife species ever.
WNS has not yet reached Manitoba. But it’s only a matter of time. Although only a small percentage (6%) of our bats leave Manitoba, the ones that do can travel over three hundred kilometers (180 miles). Contact with diseased bats is almost inevitable.
Because bats have complex social systems and can survive up to 35 years in the wild, they have low reproductive rates. This makes any population disturbance a concern. Bats are slow to recover.
Bats do not eat mosquitoes, but they can consume as many as 600 bugs per hour (mainly moths) through their uncanny echo-location. They probably save the North American farm economy billions per year.
Prof. Willis indicates that Dr. Scholl’s Foot Powder could save hibernating bats from WNS. It’s probably not economical to send cadres of spelunkers into caves to powder bats’ noses.

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