NWMO partners for bat research in South Bruce using acoustic monitoring

In July, the Toronto Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program (NBCP) installed acoustic monitors in and around South Bruce to enable researchers to study and support conservation efforts for bats in the area.

Half of Ontario’s bat species are officially endangered because of disease, habitat loss and other threats. The Toronto Zoo’s program, which focuses on bats in Ontario, is part of an international conservation effort to help bats to survive the dangers they are facing.

The work in the South Bruce area has been made possible through support from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), which is partnering with the Toronto Zoo as they develop a research program to help address knowledge gaps in the ecology of bat species in Ontario.

“This research, made possible through our partnership based on shared values of species conservation and community participation, will help inform our biodiversity studies and contribute to protection of the environment,” said Melissa Mayhew, Senior Environmental Scientist at the NWMO.

The Zoo’s new strategic plan focuses on saving wildlife, including native bat species, and is committed to help preserve many of Canada’s threatened and endangered animals. Since 2015, the Zoo’s NBCP has monitored bats around the Greater Toronto Area and beyond, locating all eight Ontario species in the region. Through the program, the Zoo has captured hundreds of thousands of acoustic observations, temporarily trapped hundreds of bats, and greatly contributed to our knowledge and conservation of these species in the province.

Globally, bats provide vital ecosystem services in the form of insect pest consumption, plant pollination, and seed dispersal, making them essential to the health of global ecosystems.  Even if you don’t like bats, bat guano is a valuable resource, at least for gardeners. Bat guano is an organic fertilizer that has been harvested for hundreds of years to improve plant growth and soil structure. Though bat guano can be expensive, it’s long-lasting positive effects deliver a healthy investment.

The non-migratory bat species are: the little brown bat, the Northern long-eared bat, the Eastern small-footed bat (not found in Manitoba), the big brown bat and the Tri-coloured bat (not found in Manitoba). Compared to the other three species, their short and rounded wings give them better manoeuvrability. Therefore, non-migratory bats are often found in closed environments (coniferous forests, urban areas).

Resident bats spend the winter hibernating in a hibernacula. These sites may be found in abandoned mines or natural caves. Consequently, these species of bats may also be called “cave-dwelling bats.” During the winter, these bats reduce their body temperature to around 3ºC to 6ºC in order to minimize energy costs, given the lack of food during this period. A site only makes a good hibernacula if it provides an environment in which this temperature can be maintained.

Little brown bats have glossy brown fur and usually weigh between four and 11 grams – about as much as a Canadian loonie or toonie.

They are typically four or five centimetres long, with a wingspan of 22 to 27 centimetres. Little brown bats look similar to northern long-eared bats.

They can be distinguished by the fleshy projection that covers the entrance to the ear. In little brown bats, the projection is long and thin, but rounded at the tip.

Little brown bats eat insects. They feed at night and are most active in the two or three hours after sunset. The female little brown bat usually gives birth to only one young, which is able to fly and obtain its own food when just three weeks old.

Bats are nocturnal. During the day they roost in trees and buildings. They often select attics, abandoned buildings and barns for summer colonies where they can raise their young.

Bats can squeeze through very tiny spaces (as small as six millimetres across) and this is how they access many roosting areas.

Little brown bats hibernate from October or November to March or April, most often in caves or abandoned mines that are humid and remain above freezing.

The little brown bat is widespread in southern Ontario and found as far north as Moose Factory and Favourable Lake.

Outside Ontario, this bat is found across Canada (except in Nunavut) and most of the United States.

Little brown bats are threatened by a disease known as white nose syndrome, caused by a fungus which is believed to have been inadvertently brought from Europe to North America.

The fungus grows in humid cold environments, such as the caves and mines where little brown bats hibernate.

The syndrome affects bats by disrupting their hibernation cycle, so that they use up body fat supplies before the spring when they can once again find food sources.

It is also thought that the fungus affects the wing membrane, which helps to maintain water balance in bats. Because of this, thirst may wake bats up from hibernation, which may be why those infected with white nose syndrome can be seen flying outside caves and mines during the winter.

Bats at more than three quarters of Ontario’s hibernation sites are at high risk of disappearing due to white nose syndrome. Mass die-offs mean that there are no individuals left to reproduce.

What can YOU do?

  • private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery; if you find Little Brown Bat on your land, you may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats
  • don’t enter non-commercial caves and abandoned mines where bats may be present; avoid visiting caves and abandoned mines where white nose syndrome has been identified
  • consider building a bat box for your property, learn more about how to build one and where to set it up