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Endangered little brown bats in prairies under study by university research teams

A little brown bat is shown in a researchers' hand. (Photo courtesy: Alicia Korpach) A little brown bat is shown in a researchers' hand. (Photo courtesy: Alicia Korpach)
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Research teams from the University of Regina and the University of Winnipeg are working to study migration patterns of the endangered little brown bat.

Little brown bats are endangered in part because of White Nose Syndrome, which is caused by a fungus that infects bats during hibernation, according to Alicia Korpach, a postdoctoral researcher who is helping to set the foundation for the project.

“We’re very interested in learning more about ecology and kind of figuring out how the disease might be transmitted as it moves westward,” she said.

Little brown bats help control pests that threaten crops and livestock, and can devour thousands of bugs in one night. However, they gained their endangered status in 2021 so the team of researchers are hoping to aid in their conservation.

Korpach, who did an undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan and a PhD at the University of Manitoba, said while there are a lot of hibernation caves in Manitoba that little brown bats use in the winter, the same can’t be said for Saskatchewan.

“In Saskatchewan, we don’t know anywhere in the province where little brown bats hibernate,” she explained. “We know they spend their summers here, we know they have their babies and raise their young in maternity colonies in Saskatchewan, we don’t know where they go for winter.”

“Kind of conversely, bats that spend the winter in our hibernacula (caves) in Manitoba, we don’t know where they go for the summer.”

The crew processing bats at a field site. The team wears protective equipment to protect the bats from getting the fungus. (Photo courtesy: Alicia Korpach)

Korpach said it is difficult to track movements of the small bats, who weigh on average only about eight to nine grams.

“They’re nocturnal and … they’re not like birds where people can keep track of them or see them very frequently,” she said. “They’re pretty tough to track and we know very little about their movements across the prairies.”

A little brown bat with a radio tracking tag. (Photo courtesy: Alicia Korpach)

To see if there are linkages between the summer in Saskatchewan and winter in Manitoba, Korpach said she is tagging bats at the cave as they come out of hibernation and seeing if she can detect any of those bats in Saskatchewan in the summer.

“Later in the summer, I’m going to be putting tracking tags on that I find at maternity roosts in Saskatchewan, and then I’m going to go back to the cave in the fall and winter to see if any of them have showed up in our cave,” she said.

“It’s a mystery, it’s detective work, it’s kind of a needle in a haystack but that’s where our plea to the public comes in.”

The research teams are looking for potential study sites where they can capture bats and tag them with microchips and radio tags.

“I’m looking to put a call out to the public to see if anybody has occupied bat boxes that they know bats are using or sometimes people have little colonies of bats in their sheds or even in the eaves of their houses, if they’d be willing to allow us to come check out their bats and possibly use their site as a study site,” she said.

A researcher holds a little brown bat. (Photo courtesy: Alicia Korpach)

Korpach said there are also big brown bat species living in the province, which people may confuse with little brown bats.

“[Big brown bats] are more likely to hibernate in people’s attics in houses … and the little brown bats are ones that are more likely to be moving back and forth and showing up every summer,” she said.

As part of the long-term project, Korpach said she will be setting up radio tracking towers through the Motus Wildlife Tracking Network that researchers mostly across North America collaborate on building.

“The idea is that we have just this massive widespread set of infrastructure of radio towers everywhere, listening for wildlife, then we can put video tags, video tracking tags on wildlife species, and ideally, will be picked up by different radio tracking towers as they migrate or as they move around,” she explained.

“I'll be attaching radio tracking tags for little brown bats in eastern Saskatchewan and then we'll see if any of our tagged bats are picked up in Manitoba by these tracking towers in the fall as they move back to the hibernation cave.”

Postdoctoral researcher Alicia Korpach builds a MOTUS radio-tracking tower in the forest to track little brown bats. (Photo courtesy of Alicia Korpach)

Korpach acknowledged that some people may be concerned about rabies but said the cases of rabies in little brown bats in Saskatchewan is exceedingly low.

“There's almost no chance you will get will get rabies from a bat. Bats that get rabies tend to die very quickly, so there's very little opportunity for them to pass it on,” she said.

The researcher said that bats are also not aggressive, so there is no need to be scared of them.

“You might see bats swooping around over your head, but they don't care about you. They're just hunting for bugs,” she said.

Korpach reiterated the main benefit of little brown bats is their ability to consume pests that destroy crops.

“Bats can eat like half of their body weight in bugs in one night … and nursing mothers can eat more than their body weight in one night,” she said.

To help the researchers with their project, you can report bat sightings to batwatch@outlook.com.

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