With the annual BC Bat Count kicking off next week, experts are advising people to stay two metres away from bat colonies, in part because of concerns that humans could transmit COVID-19 into the North American bat population.
Community Bat Programs of BC regional co-ordinator Danielle Dagenais contacted Peace Arch News last week to promote the annual count and clear up some misinformation about bats that has been spreading as fast as the virus.
What experts do know is that the COVID-19 virus is not found in the North American bat population, and they want to keep it that way.
“One thing that I’m sending out to people that I know have roosts, is I’m asking them to stay two metres away from their roof where the bats are coming out because we do not want COVID spilling into the bat population,” she said.
“Again, we don’t know if we can transfer it to bats. But we suspect that, yes, we can transfer it to bats – but we don’t know. There’s lots of tests being done.”
Dagenais said while it is possible, currently it’s only speculation that the novel coronavirus originated in bats.
“There’s a big difference between what we know and what we suspect. And it’s just because that there are viruses that bats carry that are very, very similar to SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said Dagenais, who is a bat biologist. “It has not been confirmed, to this day, that it has been passed on from a bat. There are other animals that it could have come from.”
The spread of the virus has led to the unfair prosecution of bats without trial, and prior to COVID-19 the animal had a bad rap for carrying other diseases, such as rabies, she said.
“Misinformation such as this can lead to unfounded fear.”
Dagenais said that, in reality, bats are an essential part of the environment. They consume thousands of insects each night and are critical for maintaining healthy ecosystems.
However, some North American species – including the now-endangered little brown myotis – are in trouble.
The fungal disease white-nose syndrome is responsible for the death of millions of bats across eastern North America, and in 2016 the virus was found in Washington State.
There has not yet been a confirmed case of the fungus in British Columbia, and that’s why the counts are a useful tool for bat biologists to understand bat distribution and normal variation in colony sizes before B.C. bats are impacted by the virus.
Since the disease has been confirmed in Washington, bat colonies along the U.S. border are of particular interest to biologists.
“Surrey, White Rock and Delta areas are critical (areas) that we know where our roosts are,” Dagenais said, adding that the fungus has been known to spread over a distance of up to 200-kilometres in one year.
“The more we know about sites in the Lower Mainland, the more research we can do and try to be proactive before it gets into B.C.”
The bat counting season runs from June 1 to Aug. 5. The BC Community Bat Program is aware of more than 40 colonies in buildings and 50 bat boxes in Metro Vancouver.
The society is asking homeowners with bat colonies to participate in the count. It’s also searching for volunteers to assist with the count.
People who have information on where bats are roosting, particularly in communities near the U.S. border, are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The counts are a wonderful way for people to get outside, respect social distancing, and be involved in collecting important scientific information,” Dagenais said.