A California myotis in building roost. The bat lives in B.C. and along the West Coast of North America. Photo supplied

Researchers adapt to protect bats on Vancouver Island and around province

Along with potential of COVID-19, B.C. bat populations already face threat of white nose syndrome

From the early days of the coronavirus, bats have been at the centre of the discussion around its origins.

One suggestion has been the virus showed up in humans after a person consumed a bat from a market in Wuhan, China. Others posit there was probably an intermediary species between bats and humans that allowed COVID-19 to spread.

“The species in between, however, is maybe not yet confirmed,” says Tim Ennis, co-ordinator of the North Island chapter of the B.C. Community Bat program. “There’s been lots of talk.”

Those in B.C. who work with bats point out the mammals here do not pose a danger when it comes to COVID-19. For one thing, the species in question in Asia, the horseshoe bat, is not found in the province.

On top of this, there is concern among bat researchers that the coronavirus can spread from humans to other animals such as bats.

“Wildlife biologists and wildlife health experts are concerned about the possibility that humans can pass COVID-19 to our native, local bat species,” Ennis says. “That would make us a health risk to them, not the other way around.”

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In response, he adds, there are guidelines now around research of bats. Work such as catching them for tagging purposes, for example, has been postponed until any concern is resolved. As well, any bats in the care of a rehabilitation centre are not supposed to be released back into the wild for now because of possible infection. If a bat contact cannot be avoided, researchers are being asked to wear masks, beyond the usual protective equipment like gloves.

Mandy Kellner, provincial co-ordinator of the B.C. Bat Program, emphasizes bats often carry other coronaviruses and adds the possibility of local bats contracting from people is still hypothetical.

“Getting real information out about bats is one of the problems,” she says. “It’s quite possible that they could get the virus in theory.”

There are other health issues for people when it comes to bats. There were a couple of cases of rabies on Vancouver Island last year, and people should take precautions around bats and avoid contact, but the danger is considered low. Still, there is a lot of conflicting information about bats, particularly of late.

Due to COVID-19, people who handle bats as part of tracking the health of their populations are avoiding direct contact right now.

RELATED STORY: Bat from Denman Island tests positive for rabies

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Bat program proponents continue to point out bats can help humans in many ways, especially as a measure to control pests like mosquitoes that can carry disease.

“We, of course, feel that there is minimal health risk to people from bats, and that they deserve more credit than criticism for the services they provide,” Ennis says.

Loss of habitat is always one concern in maintaining healthy bat colonies. The health issue among bats in B.C. that causes the most concern right now though is a disease called white nose syndrome, a fungus that has decimated bat colonies further east in North America but more recently has been moving west. The disease is responsible for making the most common B.C. species, the brown myotis, become endangered. There are about 15 species in the province.

The fungus started showing up in the Pacific Northwest a few years ago, so there is concern in B.C. about what that could mean to the bat population.

“It’s been spreading in Washington,” Kellner says. “It’s now in four counties there.”

She says the disease is not always easy to confirm. Bat researchers are asking people to report any dead bats they find throughout the winter, so they can take samples. They also collect guano for testing and collect swabs from bats to check for the fungus, though the latter activity has stopped because of the pandemic.

“We do expect the white nose fungus to be either in B.C. and we haven’t detected it yet, or arriving in the very near future,” she says.

Still, coronavirus is affecting the way they work with bats for now, and bat researchers realize when it comes to the coronavirus, the focus for the foreseeable future on COVID-19 research and on personal protective equipment use is around humans rather than bats.

“With all the other research priorities around COVID-19, I can’t imagine it’s at the top of the list,” Kellner says.

For now, all they can do is take precautions not to create another health issue for the animals they hope to protect.

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