Episode 1: How do we stop the Spread of White-Nose Syndrome in Bats?

15 Apr 2020

Over the past decade, millions of hibernating bats across eastern North America have died from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome causing the fastest population decline of wild mammals ever recorded. Through their research, Dr. Craig Willis and the bat lab research team at the University of Winnipeg have been trying to slow the spread of this disease and help affected bats survive. 

On this episode the research questions is, “how do we stop the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats?” We will hear from Dr. Craig Willis, bat lab research coordinator Kaleigh Norquay and other researchers about what they are doing to curb the spread of white-nose syndrome and what their research can tell us about managing wildlife diseases in the wake of global bat-borne pandemics like COVID-19.

CRAIG WILLIS: I think part of my interest in bats really stems back to that field course I did as an undergrad. That whole experience, seeing professors totally excited about what they were doing, that was infectious to me and got me really interested in field biology.

KENT DAVIES: Meet Dr. Craig Willis, professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg. Dr. Willis studies the ecology, behaviour, physiology, and conservation of wild mammals but he’s really known for researching one wild mammal in particular, bats.

CRAIG WILLIS: I keep coming back to bats because they do so many things we don’t understand. They’re so weird and unusual in so many ways and to me that just creates an exciting challenge as a biologist.

KENT DAVIES: Over the past decade, millions of hibernating bats across eastern North America have died from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome causing the fastest population decline of wild mammals ever recorded. Through their research, Dr. Willis and the bat lab research team at the University of Winnipeg have been trying to slow the spread of this disease, help affected bats survive and offer solutions toward the managing of wildlife diseases. On this episode “The research question is ”How do we stop the spread of White-Nose Syndrome in bats?”

From the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre, you are listening to Research Question. Amplifying the impact of discovery from the researchers of the University of Winnipeg.

Bats, they are among the most widespread of mammals in the world. In recent years, bats have received a lot of attention for something outside their portrayal in popular culture. Whether it be bloodthirsty vampires turning into bats or rich vigilantes using a bats likeness to terrify criminals, bats get a sinister rap for how they look when it’s their real life virus-hosting abilities that should concern us.

CRAIG WILLIS: Some of you may remember this mediocre to maybe okay film called Contagion staring Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero and…

KENT DAVIES: That’s Dr. Craig Willis speaking from a TEDx talk he gave in 2017 entitled, “Why should we care about wildlife disease?”[i] In it, Willis uses the 2011 Hollywood blockbuster Contagion as a way to explain why it’s so crucial that we mitigate the spread of wildlife diseases through conservation. In the talk Willis lays out why the destruction and contamination of bat habitats is not only killing bats but also contributing to global pandemics.

CRAIG WILLIS: But it’s based on a real disease that jumped from wild animals to livestock and then to people. It didn’t spread nearly as easily as the disease in this movie but many many other viral pathogens of wildlife are a concern and most emerging infectious diseases of people come from wild animals.

KENT DAVIES: The Wuhan outbreak is one of sixth outbreaks linked to bat-borne viruses in the last 26 years. This is something that Chinese virologists have been warning the world about for some time after having traced the natural reservoir of the SARS-coronavirus to Chinese horseshoe bats in 2013.[ii] Research published in the journal Nature by virologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences institute called for an increased number of programs and policies that would mitigate the risk of global pandemics.[iii] However, this did not stop the global pandemic we are currently facing in 2020. COVID-19 is the most significant public health threat in modern history, leading to a massive global recession, shutting down public gatherings, sending millions of people into self-quarantine, and leading to the deaths of thousands of people. The source of the current coronavirus is believed to market in Wuhan China. While it’s still not known how the disease jumped from wildlife to humans because bats were reportedly not sold at the Wuhan market. Scientists have surmised however, bats may have infected live chickens or other animals sold there.[iv] When it comes to pandemics scientists believe there are a combination of things that are resulting in an increased risk of outbreaks beginning with the health of bats. If a host to a virus and that bat is put under stress, its immune system is thrown off balance. This cause the bat to shed even more of virus through their bodily fluids that can infect other animals.[v] With growing human populations increasingly encroaching on bat habitats, with changes in land use, with wildlife and livestock transported and sold sometimes in close proximity, and with an increase in both domestic and international travel and trade, disease outbreaks of a pandemic scale are a shocking new reality that is affecting everything and everyone on earth.[vi]

CRAIG WILLIS: It’S likely that the natural reservoir for host of a whole bunch of nasty viruses that can make us sick is one bat species or another. We published a paper a couple years ago that basically showed that the way bats behave in the forest they tend to form small groups that intermix with each other. So a colony of bats might be spread among four or five trees on a given day but they switch trees every couple of days. They might use fifty trees over the course of a year. And as they switch they maintain social relationships with lots of different individuals throughout all those different trees. If you go in a cut that forest down and put up a hog barn or a livestock barn and your bats leave those many different trees and fly into your hog barn where they can all interact with every other individual in their colony every day. We modeled the implications for the potential proliferation of a new virus in that colony and it turns out it reaches very high levels much more quickly as you’d expect.[vii]

KENT DAVIES: That’s Dr. Craig Willis explaining why providing space to allow for bats to be healthy, do what they normally do without interference is critical to help us avoid the next outbreak.

CRAIG WILLIS: We’ve been able to sort of show that empirically. The best conservation approach is to leave the forest alone and let bats behave normally. Their viral loads stay lower. The risk of spill over stays lower. If you do need to put up the hog barn make sure bats can’t get in it and put up alternative habitat that mimics the natural habitat that they already had.

KENT DAVIES: There are a lot of other reasons why it’s important to keep bats healthy.

CRAIG WILLIS: They eat a lot of insects. Up to a kilogram of insects every summer.

KENT DAVIES: Willis outlines the most obvious benefit of bats results from their role as one of the main predators of night-flying insects. Bats eat an enormous quantity of bugs like moths, beetles, and even mosquitos. And who doesn’t like that in Manitoba? But more importantly many of the insects they eat are aggressive pests of crops and forests. In fact recent studies from other parts of North America and the world have highlighted the importance of insect-eating bats in controlling damage by insects saving farmers millions of dollars in crop losses and pesticide costs.[viii] Bats also pollinate over 700 plants, some of which we use for food and medicine. Wild varieties of many of our most valuable crops rely on bats for their survival. These include bananas, avocados, dates, figs, peaches, mangoes and many others.[ix] All the more reason why it’s so important for Willis and his team at the University of Winnipeg to keep researching bats and find ways on how to protect them from the threats they face, and thus make them less of threat to our collective human health.

KENT DAVIES: We are at the Richard Lake Mine with researchers from the Willis Bat Lab. Usually when we think of a lab we think of a sterile, white walled, indoor environment, but when it comes to the Willis bat lab most of the real work is done in the field in caves and bat hibernation sites called hibernacula. This abandoned mine near Kenora, Ontario is one of them.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: So five clusters of bats. Three bats and within three centimeters of that bat cluster take us substrate…

KENT DAVIES: That’s bat lab research coordinator Kaleigh Norquay. Every year the bat lab research team conducts a winter survey to get an estimate of the number of hibernating bats in multiple locations in Manitoba and surrounding areas. Out of the six species of bats in Manitoba three of them spend the winters hibernating in the province, while three migrate south for the winter. For the bats that stay, like the common little brown bat, they’re at risk of catching the disease which has decimated bat populations across North America. White Nose Syndrome.

White Nose Syndrome is associated with a cold-loving fungus, which grows as powdery white stuff on the exposed wings, ears, and noses of bats. The fungal growth attacks the bats as they hibernate, disrupting sleep, causing them to fly during the day, depleting fat reserves eventually leading to dehydration and death.[x]

CRAIG WILLIS: One of the things that our lab at the U of W was able to show in the early phase of the disease was that the fungus causes bats to spend their energy too quickly during hibernation. A little brown bat weighs about ten grams. So to put that in perspective think about a couple of loonies. And they store about two grams of stored fat in the fall before hiberanation and they live on those two grams of fat for up to eight months without eating anything. So they end up burning through that much too quickly and they run out of fuel before the end of hibernation. It’s not a systemic infection which means it doesn’t attack internal organs. It’s a simple skin infection that just invades the skin. It’s still not totally clear why that skin infection makes them use too much energy but one of the things it makes them do is warm up much to often during the winter. So, a healthy hibernator bat will spend two to three weeks in a state of what’s called torpor during winter. So, very low body temperature. So, metabolism slows way down and that’s what allows them to survive on this little bit of stored fat. But there is something about being a mammal that’s incompatible with staying cold for months and months on end. About every three weeks, our little bats, they warm up to a normal body temperature. So they shiver and shiver and shiver to get their body temperature back to normal for about a couple of hours and then they go back into torpor again and those arousals they only occur about once a month or every three weeks but they can use up to ninety per cent of their winter energy stores. What the fungus does is make them do that about three times too often. So if you are doing that much too often you burn through your fat much too quickly. One of the most affected species and until white-nose syndrome our most common species in Manitoba is called the little brown bat. It was probably the most common bat in North America and most widespread until white-nose syndrome arrived. It’s no listed as endangered in Canada entirely because of this disease.

KENT DAVIES: While there is no definitive answer to where and when White Nose Syndrome was introduced to North America, Willis and his team were instrumental in figuring out what they were dealing with.

CRAIG WILLIS: At first humans did probably spread it around a bit. One of the first caves in New York state affected by the fungus is a tourist cave, a show cave where people pay admission and go into the cave. You can do hiking tours in this huge cave. Some people have even got married in this cave. They do weddings apparently.

KENT DAVIES: This led to a theory that the fungus could have jumped to North American caves on the boots, clothing or climbing ropes of someone who had been in an infected cave in the eastern part of the world. Since the first documented case in New York State in 2006, White Nose Syndrome has spread quickly across much of eastern and central North America reaching Manitoba in the past few years. In some caves mortality rates have reached a hundred percent and over a million bats have died so far.

Since its discovery, Dr. Willis and researchers at the University of Winnipeg bat lab have been some of the leading contributors in addressing important questions about the disease. Their research focuses on everything from understanding how the fungus affects bats and to testing possible treatments to conducting fieldwork to understand whether bats can evolve traits that help them recover on their own. They have also been active in networking with other bat labs internationally, engaging in educational campaigns, and calling for better added protections of parks and wildlife areas where bats frequent. While efforts have been made to limit the human spread the fungal spores that cause the disease, it’s almost impossible to stop bats themselves from spreading White Nose Syndrome.

CRAIG WILLIS: It’s tough to curb the spread. That’s a really active area of research right now can we slow down the spread of the thing. It’s clearly now bats that are spreading it everywhere. Flight is an amazing adaptation that allows them to really get around and they like to visit lots of different caves especially before hibernation in the fall we think that’s when most of the transmission from site to site probably happens.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: Bats don’t move very often between sites but when they do they can easily go you know five hundred kilometers. So, it’s a really important way to understand why this fungus can jump so far in a single season. You know? Why it has moved two-hundred and fifty kilometers a year because a single bat can do that. 

KENT DAVIES: For Norquay, Willis and other researchers it is critical to understand where, when and how far bats are moving, to curb the spread of the disease. But if that is exceedingly difficult to do, what else can be done? During the early stages to the White Nose Syndrome outbreak, policy makers, the scientific and conservation community focused on chemical or biological treatments for infected bats during hibernation.

CRAIG WILLIS: Five or six years ago this was really the focus. There are many, many things that will kill our fungus in a petri dish in the lab. Many many of those things are also very toxic to the bats or bad for the environment in general. So it’s tough to come up with what we call the S.O.B. or spray on bats approach to come up with something that will work on a wide scale. We have tested one agent in our lab. A bacterium actually that was isolated from a bat speices that is not as badly affected from white nose syndrome and we did find a bit of a treatment benefit in the lab that’s since been replicated by some of the members of that team from the States in a small field experiment. So there is some evidence you can help a few more bats survive using this pro-biotic or bacterium. But there are problems with any kind of spray on bats approach. And one of the huge challenges for studying bats in the first place is knowing where they are in the winter time. In eastern North America there quite a lot of those places so there is some promise for those approaches there but in western North America including western Canada—we don’t know a lot about bats in the west and you can’t treat them if you can’t find them.

KENT DAVIES: As Willis points out this solution is also very much dependent of knowing where the infected bats are. So the focus then becomes on finding and protecting critical habitats, especially ones that haven’t been found yet.

CRAIG WILLIS: We haven’t yet been able to clearly define what are the critical summer habitats and that’s one of the things we’re focused on in my lab now. We know that a few bats survive the winter with the disease. It’s likely that those individuals possess heritable traits that help them survive that they could potential pass on to their offspring. And so those survivors are incredibly precious. We really want to protect them and we really want to help them reproduce. Our focus is trying to understand those survivors and try to understand how we can make their lives better in the summer so their pups grow faster get bat and survive and those beneficial traits start to proliferate in the population and become more popular in the population on the whole. That’s actually called in conservation biology it’s called evolutionary rescue.

KENT DAVIES: Despite knowing where many of the winter habitats are in Manitoba and surrounding areas, the Willis bat lab are now hoping to record their observations of bats emerging from summer maternity colonies. These could be roosts in trees, or in the attics of cottages or other buildings. Knowing these locations may help researchers understand the movements of bats and assess impacts of White Nose Syndrome on survival and reproduction. If a maternity colony is spotted during the summer months, the bat lab research team will likely visit the location at least twice. Once for counts and trapping before baby bats or pups have a chance to start flying and once again once they’ve learned to fly. On a catch night bat lab researchers will set up a variety of traps depending on the location. They’ve sometimes used something called a harp trap not unlike a volleyball net but with a finer mesh to safely catch bats. They’ve also used home-made traps for bat houses made of plastic, mesh and a whole lot of duct tape. Once a bat is caught, they are measured, swabbed for genetic testing and some of them are tagged. A PIT-tag is a transponder that tracks the comings and goings of bats. These are especially useful for researchers like Kaleigh Norquay.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: Basically we put little microchips in them, put scanners at the entrances of caves and then I did some work on the phenology of bats and so the time of when they went into hibernation and when they came out of hibernation.

KENT DAVIES: Kaleigh Norquay has been working in the bat lab since 2008. Her research focuses on the hibernation phenology and long-distance movements of little brown bats, concentrating on modeled survival estimates for bats with White-Nose Syndrome. Tagging and analyzing bats is key to curbing the spread of White Nose Syndrome and Manitoba may be one of the best places to do this kind of research in Canada. While the discovery of summer habitats can sometimes be elusive, knowing the whereabouts of underground caves or abandoned mines where bats hibernate itself a rarity and a tremendous benefit to the bat lab team.  The hardest part is usually getting there.

Kaleigh Norquay’s current role as bat lab research coordinator involves organizing research trips into caves in and around Manitoba. These locations can be a challenge to get to especially in Manitoba Winters.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: In the past month, we visited five different cave sites and swabbed fifteen bats at each site where we could find fifteen bats for their microbiome. So, we’re looking at what microorganisms are on their wings are on their bodies and also in the cave and trying to figure out how that changes before and after white-nose syndrome has been in the cave.

KENT DAVIES: Manitoba’s Interlake region is home to several large bat hibernacula, this morning the bat lab team are traveling to a site in Lake St. George Ecological Reserve near Fisher River Cree Nation.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: We’re here at St. George bat cave ready to go inside.

KENT DAVIES: Discovered in 1987, the St. George caves are the largest bat hibernaculum in the province and once estimated to be home to as many as ten thousand little brown bats. It was also the site of the first evidence of the White Nose Syndrome in Manitoba. A discovery Kaleigh Norquay witnessed firsthand.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: The last time I was here was in 2018 so I’m actually a little bit nervous about going in again because when we were here we discovered white-nose syndrome in this cave and there were lots of sick bats and dying bats and bats that were dead on the ground it was a really hard thing to see. And so I’m hoping this year that we don’t see that type of mass mortality and the bats that are here are resistant to white-nose syndrome but I am a little bit apprehensive about going in.

NICOLE DORVILLE: This cave is pretty large…

KENT DAVIES: The bat lab team includes a number of researchers from Manitoba and around the world including Nicole Dorville from Singapore who further explains why the winter is the best time for surveying bat populations.

NICOLE DORVILLE: We do the counts during winter because the bats are hibernating at this point and that means they are pretty much stationary. So it’s easier for us to get a more accurate count of how many bats there are in this cave rather than the spring when they are flying around. 

KENT DAVIES: There are many reasons to research bats in Manitoba. Not only does the province have an abundance of locations to study bats and the bat lab itself it also has one of the leading authorities on bat research in the world, Dr. Craig Willis.  

Willis’ story is similar to many of the bat lab research team. If you ask them what got them into this kind of research in the first place some of them would say it’s their love of studying animals in the field.

CRAIG WILLIS: It was half way between my second and third year and managed to get into a field course as part of the Ontario field school program that was taught by three amazing professors that I’m still in contact with and still friends with on bats and nocturnal birds. And that was the turning point of my career. I didn’t know I was going to work on bats forever after that course but I knew I was going to be a field biologist for sure that’s what I wanted to do. I got interested in neuroscience as an undergrad student from the undergrad research project I did on my forth year and I had a chance to do a cool neuroscience project in the vet college at Guelph. So I did switch gears a little bit but I always knew I’d come back to field biology and animal behaviour. My field work was in a place called the Cypress hills of Saskatchewan. And so I worked on bats social behaviour and physiology of bats in what’s a pretty tough place to make a living if you’re an insect eating animal. One of the things that struck me from my experience working with neuroscientists and this may have changed, folks might tend to think about their study animals or their patients in the case of working in a vet college kind of like machines and you are trying to get your machine to work properly. The thing that I took away from my undergraduate experience in biology and my field course experience and other field experience and someone interested in evolution is thinking about study of animals in the context of their evolutionary history. People that study animal behaviour are really sort of focused on this. And it comes back to one of the really the founders of the study of animal behaviour a guy called Niko Tinbergen who came up with (four questions) we divide them into two categories of proximate questions basically questions how the animal works and ultimate questions, questions about the evolutionary history. I think animal behaviour is great model for how to think about the traits of organisms in nature and how they’re influenced by history and natural selection.  

KENT DAVIES: This approach of studying the behavioral changes in bats may be the key to finding solutions for their survival. 

KALEIGH NORQUAY: They may you know have more arsenal in their DNA and we don’t realize is there. You know? Sometimes certain genes get turned on or turned off or behaviours change. So for example there’s one theory that bats in Europe which has the fungus but bats don’t die there in high numbers may have behavioural adaptations. For example, they don’t cluster together in as large of groups. And so one of the things that we are doing that’s just really easy from the photos that we take is just seeing if that bat clustering behaviour changes over time. I think with every bit of data that we are gathering we are just trying to look at it from as many angles as possible.

KENT DAVIES: Back at Lake St. George Kaleigh Norquay and the bat lab research team has just emerged from the cave with some promising news.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: We’re out of the cave now we’re just packing up the car. It went really well. Inside the cave we didn’t see any sick bats. All of them seemed to be doing quite well but there were many fewer than the last time I was here. So that last time I was here in the winter of 2017-2018, the bats were very very sick. There were thousands of them but there were hundreds of dead ones.  And the ones that were hibernating looked really ill you could see them struggling to breathe, trying to fly, falling on the ground. Today even though there were many fewer bats, we’ll count them this week and find out how many all of them looked really great. Which was such a relief. We got all the samples we needed. Yeah it was a good day.

KENT DAVIES: While the observations of the bat lab team are encouraging, this is just the first step in determining whether or not the little brown bat population may stabilize. How recent the dramatic population fluctuation of bats will affect our ecosystem overall is still unknown. That’s not all. You might be interested to know that White-Nose Syndrome is not the only major threat facing bats at this time. While hibernating bats fight for their survival against White-Nose Syndrome migratory bats have a whole other problem to contend with. In fact when Kaleigh Norquay started in the bat lab, wind turbines were the main culprit in the decline of bat populations.

KALEIGH NORQUAY: So yeah part of my job was to get up at the sunrise every morning and walk around the turbine in a circle for five or six hours and pick up any dead bats that we found. We’d probably pick up somewhere from three to six a day so that didn’t seem like a lot but that is a lot for an animal that only reproduces you know one pup a year.

KENT DAVIES: No one knows why exactly bats are attracted to wind turbines but evidence suggests they may seek out tall structures during certain times of the year.[xi]  

KALEIGH NORQUAY: There’s a few different hypotheses and I’m not sure that’s totally clear. The one is just they are really long distance migrators and potentially a very tall structure on the horizon historically would have been indication of a forest somewhere safe to go. Potentially they’re attracted to really tall structures because of this. Another hypothesis is that they’re attracted to really tall structures as a place to meet for mating.

KENT DAVIES: Unlike White Nose Syndrome, when it comes to wind turbine related deaths there are concrete solutions however some wind farm companies are reluctant to implement them.

CRAIG WILLIS: The mortality is concentrated during a short time of year, a couple of months and the bats also don’t like to fly on the windiest nights. They like to fly in the conditions often when the turbines aren’t making any money at all or maybe only maybe a little bit of money and so we could eliminate the problem almost entirely if we just shut off wind turbines at night during august and September. For a range of economic reasons it’s not viable apparently for the companies to do that kind of level of mitigation so there’s a bunch of work underway to try and figure out what kind of adjustments to what’s called the cut in speed we can make. So you can stop the turbines from spinning at low wind speeds. When they’re only spinning slowly and not generating much electricity if any. That can massively reduce mortality. It doesn’t fix the problem but it can reduce it a whole lot.

KENT DAVIES: In this past year Ontario’s Environment Minister cancelled a two hundred million dollar wind farm south of Ottawa citing its impact on the bat population. This prompted a legal battle between the province of Ontario and the Nation Rise Wind Farm over the future of the project.[xii] This case highlights the complexity of issues surrounding conservation and renewable energy sources especially in the context of climate change. However, Willis contends that the conservation of bat populations is important and needs to be considered when it comes to building any mega project, not only because of the vital role bats play in our ecosystem but in terms of our own interest in maintaining our health across the globe.

CRAIG WILLIS: The research we do on bats, which are economically and ecologically important animals is probably going to save some people a whole lot of money and it could become important for public health and in that sense help make people’s lives better.

KENT DAVIES: For years, scientists have focused on ways on how to mitigate the spread of bat related outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19. This includes everything from tracing a virus back to its origin, determining high-risk groups in certain mammals prone to infection and developing better diagnostic testing.[xiii] While knowing these things can allow health experts to put more control measures in place, when it comes to preventative strategies, scientists agree that placing an emphasis on some degree of conservation as not to disturb bat habitats can be vital as the risk of zoonotic infections or the transference of virus from bats to humans is highest when there is increased contact.[xiv] For Willis the easiest way to avoid outbreaks in the future human and bat alike is to help foster a healthy bat population by preserving wild habitats. In that respect the Willis Bat Lab have been able to contribute greatly to research that is helping to save the bats.

CRAIG WILLIS: We’re trying to solve a conservation problem that’s impacting an endangered species and so the law of Canada says that we have to try and solve this problem. We’ve got an endangered species and the objective of our government and our society is like other endangered species to try and improve outcomes for that species.

KENT DAVIES: The Willis bat lab is also developing innovative conservation tools.

CRAIG WILIS: What we’ve been trying to do is to make commercially available bat houses even better for bats. We know that one of the reasons that mother form colonies in the summer time is to keep it warm they like it cold but freezing in winter. They like it hot hot hot in the summer. Thirty plus degrees as long as possible throughout the day is ideal for a group of mother bats all trying to get their pups to grow fast so what we’ve been trying to do is heat up bat boxes. We’ve got an experiment going where we’ve got twenty control boxes at a group of colonies where we know there are already bats. We set out new boxes and then we have twenty heated boxes where we’ve warmed up the temperature and insulated the box. We’re looking at rates of occupation. How many bats are in the boxes of each type that’s a real focus of what we want to do. Understand survivors, what is different about the bats that are still here, and what can we do to make the world a little easier for them.

KENT DAVIES: Willis’ advice on ways you can do your part to help save the bats is by preserving and respecting bat habitats, installing bat boxes, and by reporting colonies and bat sightings to batwatch.ca.[xv]

CRAIG WILLIS: Bat watch is a bit of a bigger initiative where they provide a platform for citizens that have bat colonies on their properties or know of a bat colony in a building to first report the locations of those colonies. Which is incredibly useful information for us but also to provide even better data and count the number of bats in the colony. And this is really a cool fun thing that the average person can do if you know where a bat colony is go out just before sunset with a pen and paper, a lawn chair and your favourite cold drink and sit in a spot where you can back light the emerging bats against the dusk sky. Because you want to be able to see the silhouettes of bats as they come out of the hole in the building or the tree and then simply take a count. At first it was a challenge to convince folks to do this and everyone’s busy but once people had started to realize what a cool thing this is to see at dusk and how many bats they might have in their colony from thirty to forty to hundreds in some cases. We now have folks giving us weekly counts all summer. Which is amazing data for us. It give us great population information. It gives us great information on phonology or the timing of important life cycle events. When are the bats returning in the spring, really incredible, useful information.

KENT DAVIES: So as you heard the answer to the research question. “How do we stop bats from getting White Nose Syndrome?” Isn’t just one thing. It’s a combination of many things. From the spray on bat approach, to swabbing and testing hibernacula, from studying the hibernation phenology of bats but most notably it’s the conservation and protection of wildlife habitat that allows bats time to rescue themselves from this disease. Despite the serious crises facing bats today, Dr. Willis, Kaleigh Norquay and rest of bat lab team are determined to keep searching for answers while studying one of the most unique mammals in the world.

CRAIG WILLIS: Oh it’s still incredibly exciting when you discover something that surprises you that no one’s, you know? No one has ever discovered before. Especially when you get to do it with smart students who are equally excited.

KENT DAVIES: You’ve been listening to Research Question. Research Question is recorded at the oral history centre, at the University of Winnipeg.

The University of Winnipeg is located on treaty 1 territory. The heartland of the Métis people.

Written and Produced by Kent Davies

Interviews with Dr. Craig Willis and Kaleigh Norquay

Field Recordings by Kaleigh Norquay

Our Theme music is by Lee Rosevere

For more information on the Willis Bat Lab and how you can get involved with Batwatch go to willisbatlab.org

For more on UWinnipeg research go to uwinnipeg.ca/research

For more info on the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre and the work that we do go to oralhistorycentre.ca

Thanks for listening.  



[i] Dr. Craig Willis, “Why should we care about wildlife disease?”, filmed October 31, 2017 at TEDxUniversityofWinnipeg, Winnipeg, MB, video, 18:22.

[ii] Jane Qiu, “How China’s “Bat Woman” Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New CoronavirusScientific American, March 11, 2020. Accessed March 12, 2020.

[iii] Xing-Yi Ge, Jia-Lu Li, et al. “Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor,” Nature 503 (2013): 535–538.

[iv] David Cyranoski and Ewen Callaway. “China coronavirus: Six questions scientists are asking,” Nature 577 (2020): 605-607, Anne Gulland and Sarah Newey, “What is coronavirus, how did it start and how big could it get?Telegraph, April 6, 2020. Accessed March 12, 2020.

[v] Bob Weber, “Canadian bats unlikely to harbor virus strains like new coronavirus: expert,Canadian Press, January 31, 2020. Accessed March 13, 2020.

[vi] Qiu, “Bat Woman.”

[vii] C.M. Davy, M.E. Donaldson, S. Subudhi, et al. White-nose syndrome is associated with increased replication of naturally persisting coronaviruses in bats. Scientific Reports. (2018): 8:15508.

[viii] J.G. Boyles, P.M. Cryan, G.F. McCracken, and T.H. Kunz. 2011. Economic importance of bats in agriculture. Science 332: 41-42.

[ix] Merrill Read, “Bats Love to Pollinate,” The Echo, June 18, 2018. Accessed March 13, 2020.

[x] Bartley Kives, “White-nose syndrome found in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain as deadly bat disease pushes farther west,” CBC News, September 27, 2019. Accessed March 3, 2020.

[xi] J.W. Jameson, and C.K.R. Willis, “Activity of bats at anthropogenic tall structures: Implications for mortality of bats at wind turbines.” Animal Behaviour. 97 (2014):145-152.

[xii] Emma McIntosh and Alastair Sharp, “Wind farm owner launches court challenge against Ontario government,” National Observer, December 20, 2019. Accessed March 12, 2020.

[xiii] David TS Hayman. “Bats as viral reservoirs.” Annual review of virology 3 (2016): 77-99.

[xiv] Judith N. Mandl, Caitlin Schneider, David S. Schneider, and Michelle L. Baker. “Going to bat (s) for studies of disease tolerance.” Frontiers in immunology 9 (2018): 2112.

[xv]Neighbourhood Bat Watch,” Willis Bat Lab. Accessed March 12, 2020.