Groundbreaking bat cave discovery gives Alberta researchers baseline in fight against deadly disease

The recent discovery of a large cave — or hibernaculum — in northern Alberta where hundreds of bats have been found hibernating is giving researchers a baseline measurement in the fight against the deadly white-nose syndrome.

"Up until now, within the bulk of Alberta, the large hibernacula we have found are in the Rocky Mountains, so it's nice to find that this is the third-largest known ... in the province," Dave Critchley of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bat Caver program told The Homestretch on Wednesday.

That makes it the largest hibernaculum outside of the Rocky Mountains observed to date.

"There may be others that we haven't stumbled upon yet."

The society isn't sharing the exact location but it's in Alberta's Northern Boreal Forest, about an hour's helicopter ride from the nearest town.

"It's been known for a long time to the local First Nations folks, it has a spiritual significance to the local groups and it's in a protected area within the Alberta government's realm," said Critchley.

It's a valuable find for researchers studying the devastating white-nose syndrome, which can wipe out a bat population and has been observed in Eastern Canada and as close as Washington state.

"It decimates populations, anywhere from 90 to 99 per cent of a population," Critchley explained.

The discovery of this population could be invaluable from a research standpoint.

"We need to know where they are if there is ever a large scale treatment that we can apply," he said.

"It helps us know that there is a healthy population in the Northern Boreal Forest."

And they've also learned that hibernation isn't as black and white as previously thought.

"There is some motion, some mobility," Critchley said.

"A couple of them are adventuring to the entrance to see if it's warm enough, are there insects, coming back to the group and going back to sleep. We are seeing a lot more dynamics than what we historically understood the bats were doing."

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With files from The Homestretch