Scientists hope tiny trackers will reveal local bats’ home away from home as they continue to face critical loss of habitat

A team of biologists with the Canadian Wildlife Federation hope to learn more about what a bat needs to survive

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Biologists with the Canadian Wildlife Federation are hoping a colony of bats in east Ottawa will help teach them more about what makes a healthy and happy bat home.

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The biologists are netting and tagging bats from a colony of about 200 in a building at the MacSkimming Outdoor Education Center in Cumberland, affixing tiny transmitters they hope will lead them to the bats’ home away from home.

“We know they use alternate roosts that they’ll go to depending on the weather and the temperature,” said James Pagé, an expert on species at risk and biodiversity with the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF).

“It’s like their summer home and their weekend cottage.”

James Pagé is a specialist in species at risk and biodiversity with the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
James Pagé is a specialist in species at risk and biodiversity with the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Photo by Blair Crawford /Post media

The population of Little brown bats has crashed in the last decade by as much as 90 percent because of white-nose syndrome. First identified in the province about 12 years ago, white-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that disrupts bats’ winter hibernation, waking them and sapping their energy at a time when there are few insects to feed on.

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While some bat populations in Eastern Canada appear to have developed a resistance and are starting to rebound, bats still face a critical loss of habitat. That’s where Pagé’s study comes in. He and his team hope to learn more about what a bat needs to survive, either in man-made structures such as buildings or in special bat boxes built especially for them.

“White-nose syndrome is devastating, but we’re more interested in habitat loss,” he said. “Imagine the few that do survive white-nose are now facing other threats.”

One of those threats is eviction.

“Typically, when people find bats in their attic, especially if there’s 200 of them, they get a little uneasy. Then the bats get evicted. There’s a way to do that that doesn’t hurt the bats, but if they leave and they can’t get back in, where do they go? Can they survive?

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“We think that they do. We think they have a network of sites. But we don’t know what the network is.”

A Canadian Wildlife Federation biologist explains bat biology to bat-wrangling volunteers at the MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre.
A Canadian Wildlife Federation biologist explains bat biology to bat-wrangling volunteers at the MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre. Photo by Blair Crawford /Post media

Pagé and other CWF biologists and volunteers gathered at the MacSkimming site Thursday night at sunset. With the help of Cambridge, Ont. bat expert Derek Morningstar, they erected traps and fine mist nets to capture the bats as they left their roost for the night. But the bats outsmarted the scientists. Somehow, they eluded capture when they streamed out after sunset, leaving the biologists to wait for hours with their empty nets until the bats returned.

Eventually, several bats were caught around 2:30 am, Pagé said. Two were tagged with a tiny, harmless wing clip for future identification and had a miniature transmitter stuck to their back with surgical glue. The glue dissolves after a couple of weeks and the transmitter falls off, but until then, biologists can use an acoustic monitor to track the bats’ location and find out where they’re sleeping during the day.

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Thursday’s results were disappointing. Pagé had been expecting to snag dozens of bats for the study and had 16 transmitters ready to be affixed. He spent the day Friday tracking the two that were tagged and plans to return to the site Monday to try to capture and tag more.

Bat expert Derek Morningstar checks a trap he set up outside a maternity roost of up to 200 Little brown bats at MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre.  No fools, the bats evaded the trap as they left for their night of hunting.  Morningstar suspects they used another exit.
Bat expert Derek Morningstar checks a trap he set up outside a maternity roost of up to 200 Little brown bats at MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre. No fools, the bats evaded the trap as they left for their night of hunting. Morningstar suspects they used another exit. Photo by Blair Crawford /Post media

Another CWF team working at a site nearby had better luck, capturing Big brown bats as part of a study about how that species is affected by mercury contamination.

Bats are vital for their role in insect control. A little brown bat can eat up to its own weight in insects every night, Pagé said.

But that’s not why he chose to study them.

“There’s the mystery of bats,” he said. “They fly at night, they swoop around. People catch a glimpse of them and then they’re gone. To me, I’m drawn to that. Bats are a very misunderstood creature. They’re mysterious and, as opposed to something to be nervous or be uneasy about, I think that’s something to cherish.”

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