WCS-Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks recently discovered a massive bat hibernation site in Alberta. Based on the estimated bat count, it's believed to be the largest-ever bat cave in the province ever recorded outside of the Rocky Mountains.
The newly-discovered cave is being used as a hibernaculum by at least 200 little brown bats, listed as Endangered under Canada's Species at Risk Act.
The narrow, muddy cave was formed by weak sulphuric acid dissolving bedrock. Crawling through the sulphuric waters in the cave required protective suits and care to guard eyes and mouths.
The study of hibernation spots has become extremely urgent in western Canada since the 2016 discovery of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in Washington State. Bats with WNS are infected with a fungus that wakes the bats and forces them to burn through their precious stored winter fat long before the return of insect season. It spreads throughout hibernation sites and can kill more than 90 percent of resident bats. WNS has devastated bat colonies in eastern North America and could be an emerging threat west of the Rockies.
The crew that explored the Alberta cave collected DNA and guano samples for analysis. In addition, they placed ultrasonic bat detectors along with temperature and humidity loggers in the cave to learn more about the colony.
"Bats are the No. 1 nocturnal consumer of insects such as mosquitos," said WCS Canada Associate Conservation Scientist and bat specialist Dr. Cori Lausen. "Losing vast numbers of the night-feeders will have cascading impacts for backyard enthusiasts and ecosystems, and for industries such as forestry and agriculture. It's urgent we develop plans for protecting bats and ensuring they are in a position to eventually recover should WNS hit the western provinces."
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