Study of Flathead bats could lead to disease breakthrough

A new study concludes that B.C.'s Flathead River Valley could play an important role in understanding White Nose Syndrome.

  • Nov. 1, 2013 6:00 a.m.

A new study concludes that B.C.’s Flathead River Valley could play an important role in understanding White Nose Syndrome, a mysterious disease that has nearly wiped out two North American bat species.

The first formal inventory of bats in the Flathead, conducted by bat biologist Dr. Cori Lausen over a four-day period in June 2013, detected both species of highly-endangered bat in the Flathead: little brown myotis and northern myotis.

This is the first recording of northern myotis in southeast B.C. and it will be confirmed with follow-up study.

White Nose Syndrome, responsible for the recent deaths of almost seven million North American bats, is a poorly-understood fungal disease that kills bats while they hibernate. Lausen’s study, Bat Inventory of Flathead River Valley, points out that “every single mitigation and prevention strategy that has come out of research into this disease requires that the roosts used by hibernating bats be known.”

Hibernacula, or large bat hibernation shelters, are commonly found in karst landscapes and are not known anywhere in B.C.

Yet the Flathead area “is surrounded by karst, including the deepest cave in Canada,” says the study.

“Extensive karst in the Flathead area suggests that we may find large hibernacula, which in turn could lead to a greater understanding of bats across the west, and hope for helping bats survive the White Nose disease,” Lausen comments.

The study urges future inventory to fully describe bat diversity and understand the winter and summer habitats that are important to Flathead bats.

It notes that an inventory is “of some urgency given the relatively rapid westward spread of the WNS fungus.”

Lausen and other bat researchers also acoustically detected a third significant bat species, the eastern red bat, an at-risk species only recently discovered in B.C. and never so far south in the province.

The species was among 10 that bat researchers found or detected during the second annual Flathead BioBlitz in June 2013, organized by conservation groups in B.C. and Alberta.

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