Microbat Conservation

A recently introduced fungal disease called white-nose syndrome is devastating bat populations in Canada. Particularly vulnerable to this new scourge are microbat species, including little brown myotis, northern myotis and tri-colored bats. Find out more about this species.

White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by a pathogen called Pseudogymnoascus destructans: a cold-loving fungus introduced from Europe that grows on the skin of bats when their body temperature drops during hibernation. Lesions on the wings of infected bats affect their ability to retain water, forcing them to wake up to rehydrate. These frequent disturbances eat away at fat stores, causing the bats to starve before spring arrives. This disease was first detected in Canada in 2010, and by 2015 it had caused a 94 per cent overall decline in hibernating myotis bats in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. The sudden and dramatic impact of white-nose syndrome led several vulnerable bat species to be added to the federal Endangered list in 2014. In response, Wildlife Preservation Canada and the Hunter Foundation funded a feasibility assessment to determine whether captive management could address this growing threat. The research explored several key questions: Can we find suitable numbers of bats to establish a conservation breeding program? Do existing facilities like zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centres have the infrastructure and expertise to keep large bat colonies and reintroduce them to the wild? And if successful reintroductions are possible, will it actually mitigate the effects of white-nose syndrome?

The results of the feasibility study conclude that at the moment, the infrastructure and expertise needed to effectively manage captive colonies of bat species affected by white-nose syndrome do not exist. Furthermore, until a cure to the disease — and an effective means of treating bats in the wild — can be found, any released bats would still be at risk. However, many zoos and wildlife rehabilitators remain enthusiastic about the prospect of conservation management for endangered Canadian bats.

Properly assessing the feasibility of recovery tools ensures that precious conservation resources are used effectively. In this case, it was determined that conservation breeding of microbats is not currently an appropriate recovery activity. Although establishing and maintaining large bat colonies may not be feasible at this time, improving husbandry methods of smaller numbers could benefit the species in the future if a cure is found. It may also improve global capacity to care for similar species in captivity. Our survey identified a number of zoological institutions that would be interested in establishing colonies of Canadian bats and could be brought together to work towards developing successful husbandry methods.

Davy, C.M., and A.K. Whitear. 2016. Feasibility and pitfalls of ex situ management to mitigate the effects of an environmentally persistent pathogen. Animal Conservation. doi: 10.1111/acv.12274

The feasibility study for conservation of Canadian bats was authored by Amelia Whitear and Dr. Christina Davy from Trent University. Many individuals and organizations supported their efforts, including bat researchers, captive breeding experts, zoological institutions, wildlife rehabilitators and other organizations.

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