U of W’s very own Batman

Local professor aims to stop killer bat disease around North America

U of W’s Craig Willis invented a bat box (pictured here) to keep bats from freezing due to a deadly fungus depleting their fat reserves. Mark Reimer

A mysterious disease killing hundreds of thousands of bats in the United States has attracted the attention of Craig Willis, assistant biology professor at the University of Winnipeg. And now Willis has attracted international attention.

White Nose Syndrome (WNS), first discovered in 2007 near Albany, New York, involves a white fungus that grows on the skin of the face and wings of bats during hibernation.

“The bats don’t seem to mount any immune response,” Willis said.

Willis thinks the bats come out of hibernation more often in order to warm up from the fungus, causing a depletion of their fat reserves. As a result, bats die of starvation outside their caves in an effort to locate food.

Willis and his research partner, graduate student Justin Boyles of Indiana State University, estimate that 600 tons of insects, including mosquitoes, are no longer getting eaten.

Not ones to take things quietly, Willis and Boyles thought of a prototype artificial heat source to help the bats warm up during hibernation.

Now, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service provided the pair with a US$28,000 grant to test if the bats will use an artificial thermal site.

It’s the only place in the world to test this idea.

Craig Willis, University of Winnipeg biology department

The thermal sites consist of big, insulated cereal-type boxes equipped with temperature control and a heating coil, in which the bats are supposed to hibernate.

The sites will be placed in several caves near Grand Rapids, Manitoba, for testing.

“It’s the only place in the world to test this idea,” Willis said, referring to the fact sites have been removed from all U.S. locations where bats aren’t healthy.

The fungus, which has yet to reach Canada, is now spread across seven states, leading to mortality rates of an average 85 per cent in most caves.

Willis hopes to have the project going in the next couple of weeks before the winter is over.

Mathematical simulations of the project show bats’ mortality rate can drop to eight per cent.

Mary Timonin, a post doctorate fellow in Willis’ Winnipeg-based lab, looks after the technical and practical side of the project.

She said the testing will also include unheated boxes.

“We need to see if they use any of the boxes, heated or unheated,” she said.

To track the bats, the team tagged them with microchips, thanks to a $29,000 grant from Manitoba Hydro’s Forest Enhancement program.

“Because of our transmission system, if we are impacting the forest land we have to try to address that,” said Brian Carruthers, environmental education specialist with Manitoba Hydro.

“I think it (Hydro) recognizes that they (bats) are ecologically important animals,” Willis said, adding little is known about bat behaviour during the summer.

Willis said they don’t know how WNS is transmitted, saying that scientists in the U.S. are researching this aspect of the disease.

“Circumstances point to an infectious disease,” Willis said.

He believes tracking migration patterns between winter and summer would help show how WNS is spread.

Published in Volume 63, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 19, 2009)

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