Thompson Rivers University

Bat research breaking new ground

  Posted on: October 28, 2019


Whether they give you the heebie-jeebies or not, bats are necessary, and right now North American bats are under serious threat.

Researchers at TRU, led by Dr. Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham, are working alongside other researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, McMaster University, UBC, and UBC-O on a groundbreaking project in which researchers apply a probiotic cocktail to bat boxes to prevent the spread of a deadly disease that is decimating bat populations.

Cheeptham’s team, which includes graduate student Nick Fontaine, have isolated bacteria from the wings of healthy bats that works to prevent the spread of Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), the pathogen responsible for White Nose Syndrome. White Nose Syndrome has spread to 36 states and seven Canadian provinces and has killed more than 6 million bats.

Originally, the Cheeptham’s team was working out of an enclosure at the BC Wildlife Park where the probiotic was applied to the treated bats via a liquid solution. This fall, shortly before the bats went into hibernation, Fontaine worked with researchers at UBC to create a powder out of clay that they then applied to the bases of bat boxes. When entering the boxes, the clay mixture collects on the bat wings, and ideally protects them from Pd. Leah Rensel, a graduate student from UBC-O, worked alongside Fontaine counting and banding bats that were heading into the boxes.

Next spring when the bats return further tests will be conducted to determine whether evidence of the probiotic persists on the bats, and a recount will take place to determine any losses through the winter months that could be attributed to White Nose Syndrome.

So far, there is no irrefutable evidence that White Nose Syndrome has made its way to British Columbia, but scientists are predicting that if it is not here yet, it will arrive shortly. This is one of several research projects underway in North America that is working to prevent the spread of the deadly fungus, and to prevent further losses. The research is funded in part by the Bats for the Future Fund, BC’s Habitat Conversation Trust Foundation, and the Tri-University Major Project Collaboration Grant.

Pseudogymnoascus destructans was first discovered in 2006, and thrives in cold, damp places, making the caves in which bats typically hibernate ideal incubators. The fungus irritates the bats, causing them to wake during hibernation, and use up vital energy that they need survive until spring. Bats with Pd typically die from starvation and exposure.