The fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome, an infectious disease that’s decimated bat populations across eastern Canada, is making rapid gains across the Prairies. Pseudogymnoascus destructans was detected last summer along Alberta’s Red Deer River, says Cory Olson, the coordinator of the Alberta Community Bat Program with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. The fungus expanded more than 500 km in a one-year span, setting the stage for wider distribution into prime bat habitat in the Rocky Mountains.
Pseudogymnoascus destructans was first identified in eastern North America in 2006, likely arriving from Europe on clothing or equipment or from an infected bat on a cargo ship. The fungus spreads from bat to bat and thrives in cool temperatures. The infection irritates bats’ skin and disrupts hibernation, depleting their energy reserves and leading to starvation. Populations of little brown bats, northern bats (a.k.a. northern myotis), and tri-coloured bats have plummeted more than 90 per cent in affected areas as the fungus spreads west across the continent.
But there could be hope on the horizon. European bats are resistant to white-nose syndrome, and Olson says there’s evidence that a small proportion of affected species in North America have tolerance as well. “Assuming their offspring are also resistant, these individuals could help populations recover, provided they can successfully reproduce,” he says. Meanwhile, little brown bats and northern bats were recently listed as endangered under Alberta’s wildlife act.
Bats are critical in regulating insect populations, including mosquitoes and defoliators of forests and crops. Olson points to an American study which suggests bats provide the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of organic insect control each year. “Bats are important for the maintenance of healthy ecosystems and the loss of bats is likely to have important long-term consequences,” Olson adds. “We knew this fungus would eventually arrive in Alberta, and that a cultural shift in how people perceive bats, and manage them, was urgently needed. We need to do more to protect bats.”