In the quiet dusk of summer, the Burvilla historic house on Deas Island wakes up. Squeezing through tiny openings in its walls and roof, thousands of Yuma bats and little brown bats stream into the night.
The Delta colony, one of the biggest in British Columbia, has been the site of bat monitoring and research for the last two years by Metro Vancouver and the South Coast Bat Conservation Society.
“We’re tracking the population and trying to understand how many there are,” said Robyn Worcester, natural resources management specialist for Metro Vancouver. The groups are hoping to “get a baseline of information so that if white nose syndrome … comes to B.C., then we’ll have some understanding of what’s going on here.”
White nose syndrome is a phrase of fear in the bat-research community, a disease that has killed more than 6.7 million bats across North America in just over a decade. It’s wiped out entire colonies of bats in eastern North America, and it’s making its way to the west.
Named for the characteristic fuzzy nose infected bats often develop, white nose syndrome makes hibernating bats wake up when they shouldn’t. Normally, bats wake up once every 15 to 20 days to drink, pee, mate and groom. Infected bats wake up nearly five times more often, depleting their precious fat reserves and ultimately leaving them to die of starvation, dehydration and hypothermia.
It’s all because of a cold-loving, globe-trotting fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, more commonly known as Pd.
Pd is an invader from Europe, likely brought over in the dirt on someone’s shoes or backpack. The disease was first documented in Albany, N.Y. in 2006. In 2016, it was discovered in Washington state, about 50 km east of Seattle; as of May 2017, both the state’s little brown bats and Yuma bats have tested positive for white nose syndrome.
Biologists believe it’s only a matter of time before the fungus is found in B.C. as well, possibly as soon as this winter.
Right now, Purnima Govindarajulu, small mammal and herpetofauna (amphibian and reptile) specialist with the province, said, the focus is on detecting the disease, making sure it isn’t brought here inadvertently and filling knowledge gaps so biologists can help the bats when it arrives.
In B.C., those knowledge gaps are huge.
“We don’t know where our bats are hibernating,” said Chris Currie, a conservation biologist with the South Coast Bat Conservation Society.
“It’s basically just impossible for us to tell [how bad B.C.’s bat populations will be affected by white nose syndrome] right now,” Currie said. Many people believe western bats don’t hibernate in massive colonies like they do in the east, making them less susceptible to white nose. But biologists can’t say for sure.
This is why groups like the South Coast Bat Conservation Society are counting as many bats as they can in summer colonies like Burvilla: if they know how many bats are in a colony, they can document changes after the emergence of white nose syndrome.
But there are only about 30 biologists in B.C. looking at bats, and they can’t count them all themselves. That’s why initiatives like the Got Bats program through the B.C. Community Bat Program are looking to get the public involved in long-term summer counts.
In the winter, British Columbians can report unusual activity, which includes day-flying bats or dead bats, to the B.C. Community Bat Program online at bcbats.ca, by calling toll-free, 1-855-9BC-BATS or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Currie, very few of the scientists studying bats in B.C. have significant funding. “So getting assistance from the community, and the government in this new sort of funding, is really key for us to be able to address this huge new threat,” he said.
On Oct. 27, the B.C. government announced an additional $40,000 in funding to support bat monitoring programs and white nose syndrome prevention in the province.
The day before, the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada announced it had received a $150,000 grant to study the possibility of using beneficial bacteria to combat white nose syndrome — a study Burvilla’s bats had been part of in the early stages.
This funding will allow biologists to continue to take a multi-tiered approach to white nose syndrome, working together to combat the disease and other threats to bat populations. Only time will tell if it’s been enough.
“If we remove some of the other threats … we can build resilience in the population,” Govindarajulu said.
“So yes, some of the bats will die of the disease. But if we make things good the populations will recover.”