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Conservationists warn white-nose syndrome’s arrival in B.C. bat populations only a matter of time

Aug 15. 15

By Travis Lupick
The Georgia Straight

The most visible human threats to animals are actions like hunting, logging, and habitat destruction. But more complicated and often invisible factors are equally destructive.

Forces driving species to extinction also include diseases spread by humans, and the effects of climate change such as the increasing acidification of oceans related to the output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In 2013, for example, purple starfish once ubiquitous on Vancouver’s rocky beaches began disappearing in an epidemic called sea-star wasting syndrome, a disease scientists concede they don’t fully understand. This year, shellfish populations off the west coast of Vancouver Island are in crisis. Oyster farmers watching their livelihoods vanish have said they suspect rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are to blame. Mark Winston, a professor at SFU, recently told the Straight that a phenomenon scientists call colony collapse disorder kills roughly a third of B.C.’s bees every year.

According to a B.C. Ministry of Environment amphibian surveillance program, 64 percent of frog species and 30 percent of salamanders in the province are listed as “species of conservation concern”. One of the primary threats is an infectious disease called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which has devastated frog populations since it began spreading out of Central America in the 1990s.

As complex as these problems are, it is often community conservationists that are leading efforts to save B.C.’s plants and animals.

In a telephone interview, Juliet Craig, coordinating biologist for the Kootenay Community Bat Project, said bats are likely one of the next animals we’ll add to lists like the one above.

“Many people don’t know that over half of the species of bats in B.C. are considered at risk,” she told the Straight.

Today, it is primarily habitat loss that’s adversely affecting bats, she said. But, similar to the situations of North American amphibians and B.C. sea stars, a disease has rapidly emerged as the greatest threat faced by bat populations across the continent.

Craig explained that beginning in the late 2000s, a disease called white-nose syndrome began leaving millions of bats dead each year.

“It’s in 25 states and five provinces at this time,” she continued. “It was identified first in a cave in New York in the winter of 2006-07 and every year it spreads out.”

Craig said B.C. conservationists are waiting for the imminent arrival of the fungus, which scientists eventually identified as Pseudogymnoascus destructans.

“At this point, we are looking at a ‘when it gets here’ more than an ‘if it gets here’ scenario,” she emphasized.

Waiting for the disease's imment arrival, researchers are scrambling to determine what the province stands to lose.

“There is very little long-term monitoring data on bats and very little known about population trends, except, generally, that they are going down,” Craig said. The first thing researchers need to do is figure out how many bats live in B.C.

Felix Martinez-Nunez, a research assistant in UBC’s department of botany, has spent the last three years counting bats around the Lower Mainland and surrounding areas. In a telephone interview, he similarly said the lack of existing research is a problem.

“It is scary,” Martinez-Nunez told the Straight. “We know where they are, and there is work being done. But we need to know before in order to develop conservation strategies.”

He noted that while white-nose syndrome may seem far away, still mostly confined to the continent’s northeast, bats can travel a distance of 300 kilometres in less than a year.

“This disease is spread just by contact,” Martinez-Nunez said. “So if one infected bat touches another one, the disease can spread. For that reason, it is moving so fast from east to west.”

He added it is still easy enough to find bats, even in close proximity to dense urban areas. For example, the Stanley Park Ecology Society watches over a number of brown bat populations in downtown Vancouver. But Martinez-Nunez and Craig warned that could soon change.

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Photo Credit: Nessie Grace via Flickr

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