White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in North America. Now it's been found in Sask.

·4 min read
A bat with white-nose syndrome, a disease which has decimated the bat . There is currently no cure for the disease, which is derived from a fungus that has now been detected on a bat in southeastern Saskatchewan. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative - image credit)
A bat with white-nose syndrome, a disease which has decimated the bat . There is currently no cure for the disease, which is derived from a fungus that has now been detected on a bat in southeastern Saskatchewan. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative - image credit)

A fatal bat disease that's killed millions of bats across North America, all but wiping out certain species in eastern Canada, has been found for the first time in a bat in Saskatchewan.

White-nose syndrome is a fungal infection that affects hibernating bats, and has been spreading across North America since 2006.

Saskatchewan now has its first confirmed case with a bat in Grasslands National Park, in the province's southwest, Saskatchewan Environment said in a Thursday Facebook post, "making it more important than ever to report any bats found dead or on the ground."

Trent Bollinger conducted the necropsy on the bat, which was found in late May.

"That fungal infection contributed to the death of the animal if not killed it," said Bollinger, a wildlife veterinary pathologist with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

"When I looked at this bat I could see fungal agents in the wing, extensive destruction of the wing and bacteria which may result in secondary infection."

White-nose syndrome

White-nose syndrome begins with the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus, which can present on the bat's muzzle and looks like a white foam.

The fungus can then spread on bat fur, and it manifests while the mammals are in hibernation, appearing most often in lesions on their wings, nose and ears.

Scientists believe the lesions dehydrate or irritate the bats, causing them to wake up from hibernation more often than usual and to expend more energy.

In the end, infected bats may be too weak and can die from a lack of energy, starvation or other complications from the disease.

Bollinger said infected bats are in poor condition when they come out of hibernation, and often die after emerging early or shortly after coming out of winter slumber.

"They can die from the disease after the hibernation due to wing damage, secondary bacterial infection, extremely poor body condition after the effects of white-nose syndrome over the hibernation period."

Bollinger confirmed this is the first report of the disease killing a bat in Saskatchewan, though he's uncertain if the bat had hibernated in the province or migrated from elsewhere.

He said the national park is near locations in North Dakota where the fungus has been found.

Little brown bats decline

Mark Brigham, a bat expert and biologist at the University of Regina, said the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was first found in the province last year during bat guano (excrement) testing.

If the disease catches hold in the province it could eradicate a significant number of species affected by it, Brigham said, including the federally endangered little brown myotis and northern myotis bats.

"Twenty years ago, before the disease got to North America, little brown bats would have been the most common species in North America. You can't say that anymore," Brigham said, noting the little brown is one of eight known species in Saskatchewan.

The disease was found in bats in western Manitoba in 2019 — at that point, the westernmost location where the infection has been found in Canada.

The little brown bat, the most common bat species in Manitoba, was being "absolutely crushed" by the disease, University of Winnipeg biologist Craig Willis said at that point.

"They're super-common bats in this sort of agricultural, rural matrix where we probably depend on bats, to some extent, for pest control above crops," he told CBC in 2019. "So that's a particular worry."

White-nose syndrome has already reduced the known population of the little brown and northern myotis bat species in some eastern provinces by more than 90 per cent, including Ontario and Quebec.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

According to an amendment to the Species at Risk Act, "these declines are considered by some experts to be the most rapid decline of mammals ever documented anywhere."

The disease was introduced to the U.S. from Europe (and first found in North America in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in 2006) and then Canada in 2010. By 2012, it had already killed an estimated seven million bats in North America.

There isn't a cure for the disease.

There is a silver lining in the dry climate of Saskatchewan, though, Brigham said. The fungus thrives in wet and cold areas and, while scientists aren't sure where these species hibernate in Saskatchewan, they're hopeful it's in locations drier than provinces in eastern Canada.

Brigham said that if bats enter hibernation in better shape with more body fat, they have a better chance of surviving the disease if they get it. That means bats need more meals — and they eat insects.

"I know most people don't like insects and therefore … we spread pesticides," he said.

"The best thing we can do is … cope with a few mosquitoes, put repellant on your skin, but just live with it, because lots and lots of animals need flying insects to survive."

The provincial government said the disease isn't transferable to humans but advise people to use gloves or a towel when moving a dead bat because it could be carrying other diseases.

They also recommend contacting the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative to report dead or sickly bats.

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