By Cori Lausen
When I was a graduate student studying bat ecology, I was keen to learn how to properly explore caves– a crucial skill, since the animals go underground to hibernate in the fall, reappearing only in springtime. During my first cave experience near Calgary, wedged between two rocks with no room to move my head, I was seized with claustrophobia. It’s a fear I’ve learned that I can overcome, but only if I am looking for bats.
Bat Week culminates on Halloween this year. It’s a fitting opportunity to recognize how important these nocturnal flying animals are to our planet. The cave-dwelling mammals have been increasingly at risk from White Nose Syndrome, or WNS, a lethal malady that has been spreading westward since its first occurrence in 2006.
Despite my fear of confined spaces, I continue to be lured underground for the sake of bat conservation. One day sticks out in particular for me. Our new British Columbia BatCaver program co-coordinator, Martin Davis, offered to take me on a caving adventure through northern Vancouver Island.
To reach Pellicidar cave, near Port McNeill in BC, one has to go through a nearly impassable road. After having to stack logs and clear branches and small fallen trees to make a path for our truck, we finally got to the end of the road, with only a little daylight remaining.
We set out on a trail with some cooking equipment and food along with our gear, looking forward to a camp meal after the nets were set. Countless burned calories later and with our packs weighing us down, we finally located the cave opening more than an hour after the sun had gone down. I started for the entrance – until I laid eyes on it and gasped with horror.
This cave had a collapsed entrance that cavers had long ago dug a culvert into – straight down about 10 feet. If you bent your hips just right, there was in fact a narrow slot through the rock. After fifteen feet of claustrophobic crawling I was in Pellicidar cave, a spectacular array of stalactites and stalagmites (rock formations that descend from the ceiling and rise from the floor of a cave respectively).
Getting the mistnet poles and necessary netting gear down the culvert was a challenge, but luckily I’d packed short poles and soon we had a net strung inside to capture free-flying bats that could be moving around inside this deep expansive cave system.
This and similar experiences led me and other scientists to team up with cavers to inventory the nooks and crannies where as many as 14 species of bats that overwinter in western Canada may be found. This spawned WCS Canada’s BatCaver program, which draws on the expertise and assistance of cavers to locate and identify bats that spend the winter underground. There is an urgency to locate these sites before the deadly WNS arrives in western Canada.
We have been capturing bats congregating in caves and mines to determine the species, sex, and age of animals found at certain sites. We are also researching what temperature and humidity regimes different bat species use when they hibernate and measuring how long the hibernation periods are. This helps us understand how western bat populations might be affected by WNS.
Our program also promotes the use of decontamination protocols to prevent the inadvertent introduction of WNS in British Columbia. Predicting which species and areas are likely to be hit hardest will help managers and biologists make difficult decisions about where to focus limited financial resources and what strategies to employ.
One knowledge gap includes bat metabolism and physiology, particularly during hibernation in the western U.S. and Canada. Rather than wait for the arrival of WNS and studying dead bats, we can deploy a modelling approach that integrates existing knowledge from die-offs in the East with new measurements of western and northern North American bat populations.
These models could provide our best hope to proactively develop and implement mitigation strategies for western and northern populations. To this end, I have teamed up with several disease modelling colleagues and physiologists from WCS, Texas Tech University, University of British Columbia, University of Regina, and even Massey University in New Zealand.
We have been working tirelessly this fall to measure bat physiology in Creston, BC, with the goal of collecting information on bats from across the west and eventually from the northern boundary of their distribution. Because we know that larger fat reserves and lower metabolic rates may actually increase WNS survival rates in some bat species, collecting this information could help us identify particular areas to target for conservation.
In the meantime, I am impressed with cavers’ drive to explore and conserve the underground and to help with scientific advancement in cave microbiology and bat ecology. I also really enjoy their company since netting bats at night can sometimes be isolating work. We still have a lot to discover about these bats, but for this claustrophobic scientist, the effort is well worth the reward.
Dr. Cori Lausen is an associate conservation scientist with WCS Canada with support from the WCS Wildlife Health & Health Policy Program. Both her Masters and PhD research were on bats, with the former focusing on behavior and physiology, and the latter on landscape genetics.