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Bat disease headed west

Hibernating bats infected with white nose syndrome. The fungus is not usually visible if bats are found dead. - New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Hibernating bats infected with white nose syndrome. The fungus is not usually visible if bats are found dead.
— image credit: New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation

A disease afflicting bats across eastern North America has a local veterinarian “dreading” its arrival.

White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungal disease that kills bats during their winter hibernation period. It is believed to have been introduced to North America and to spread primarily through bat-to-bat contact. No cases have been reported in western North America so far.

“As with any condition new to a population, there’s going to be high mortality rates,” said Dr. Ken Macquisten from Whatcom Road Veterinary Hospital. While he hasn’t personally seen the disease, his research has indicated “colonies were virtually wiped out.”

“It’s primarily up to bats to control insects,” along with swallows, said Macquisten.

Bats are slow to reproduce, he continued, so it would take survivors years to rebuild a colony.

A lack of bats has potential effects on agriculture, said University of the Fraser Valley biology instructor and mycologist Pat Harrison, due to the “number of insects that bats eat every day.”

One of the theories, he said, is that with fewer bats, the bugs could attack crops.

Harrison said WNS has spread to 16 states and four provinces in less than 10 years.

“I think it’ll come and no one has stopped it yet,” he said. “It should be taken seriously.”

B.C. environment ministry biologists are asking the public to watch and report bat sightings this winter, as they try to track the disease that has killed millions of bats in eastern and central Canada and the U.S.

B.C. biologists are working to understand how to protect bats from the syndrome and how to help populations should the disease arrive.

If you see bats flying during the day, dead or dying bats or the location of winter bat roosting sites, provincial biologists are asking you to report sightings at 250-387-9500.

For more information on B.C. bats and White Nose Syndrome, see the “current issues” section at www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/wldhealth/

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