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iN VIDEO: How a B.C. researcher and microbiologist hope to save bats across the continent

Cori Lausen has been studying bats for over 20 years, and she has been working alongside Thompson Rivers University's Dr. Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham and research students in hopes to stop the spread of white nose syndrome.
Image Credit: YOUTUBE / Storyhive
November 18, 2019 - 6:00 AM

The work of a bat specialist, cave microbiologist, and some university students who are working against the clock to help save B.C. bats from the most catastrophic wildlife disease to ever hit North America is in sharp focus in a new documentary.

Cori Lausen is an associate research biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, and for more than 20 years she has actively been working to protect bats.

Lausen was featured on a Telus Storyhive documentary filmed near Kamloops called The Long Shot: Saving Western Bats. Starting in June, she worked with scientists and research students from Thompson Rivers University to create a preventative probiotic projec they hope can save millions of bats before they are affected by white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome has been described as the most catastrophic wildlife disease to hit a species in North America. Lausen says when it was introduced in 2006, she was just finishing her Ph.D. and she shifted her focus to this contagious disease.

“At the very beginning, people panicked and said, ‘We need to find a way to stop the fungus or we’re going to lose most of our bats across the continent,’ and so there’s been a lot of studying done on trying to treat the fungus,” Lausen says.

Lausen says the disease started in Europe nearly 10,000 years ago, but the bat population there has evolved to avoid roosts where the fungus lives, and the Europeans don’t have any sort of treatment available. White-nose can kill bats in a few different ways, but always during the cold winter months. The fungus spreads from bat to bat and feeds on their flesh.

“It starts to essentially eat holes in the bats’ wings as it goes deep down into the dermal layer of the skin… it actually starts to impact the actual physiology of the bat itself, because once it starts to impact large areas of the skin it throws off the kidneys,” Lausen says. “The blood chemistry changes and the bats can die from physiological imbalances.”

The bats will wake up to warm themselves a couple of times during a normal hibernation, but bats with white-nose will wake up more often to warm themselves up and kick their immune system into high gear, hoping it will fight off the infection. Lausen says this constant waking and warming causes the bats to lose fat and many die of starvation over the winter.

“If they’ve survived all of that over the winter, they go to fly out of the cave and their wings are full of gaping holes, and they die that way. They flop on the ground and can’t hunt.”

Credit: YOUTUBE / Storyhive

When the disease took hold in North America, it was the eastern provinces and states that were affected. There, bats roost and hibernate in large caves, where researchers are able to visit and check the bats, and it offers them a place where they can test one of the many methods that they hope could cure the bats. So far, no attempts to save infected bats have been successful.

“In the east, they can walk in and see hundreds of thousands of bats and they could potentially save them … but in the west, we don’t have anything like that,” Lausen says.

“We can’t seem to find them because they're not using caves… they’re getting into very different types of hibernation roosts, and if they did get white-nose, they would die underground and we would never see it. We need to have a completely different approach here, none of those ‘Let’s treat the disease’ type of options are going to work here. So that’s why I came up with the idea to try and prevent it.”

Lausen teamed up with the only cave microbiologist in the country, Dr. Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham, who works at Thompson Rivers University. Together, the two developed a probiotic they hope will help the bats fend off the fungus before it can take hold.

White-nose was discovered in Washington state in 2016, and although it hasn’t been reported in B.C. yet, Lausen says creating a preventative measure could save local bats, which are at a high risk of catching the disease due to close proximity, migration, and promiscuous mating.

“Our best way to test that this is going to work is to get it onto bats on the edge of where white-nose is,” Lausen says. “We are all cautiously optimistic because we don’t know yet if this is going to be helpful.”

Lausen and the team used bacteria already found on the bats’ wings to create a probiotic that could fend off the disease but would not cause any adverse effects on the animals. She says the eastern provinces have tried treating whole caves with anti-fungal sprays, which can throw off parts of the ecosystem. Her method is a less invasive approach, with bats getting the probiotic by spraying it into maternity roosts. Lausen hopes it can be used by people all over the province, and maybe the continent, who want to save the bats.

“We can’t possibly treat every bat individually,”  Lausen says. “Landowners or people who are keen on bats and have boxes in their backyard, they can participate in this because they can get a package in the mail and spray it into their bat boxes, which means it could go far and wide.”

Lausen and the team captured a couple of bats and put the probiotic solution on their wings.  The bats have now been in a simulated hibernation fridge in Kamloops for the past week, and in one more week, Lausen will check on them to see if the probiotic is growing in appropriate numbers.

“We’re in our last phase now of the captive trial in which we put the bats into a special fridge, we modified it and what it’s doing is simulating a cave environment,” Lausen says.

“They’ve been in there for about a week now, and we’re going to open it up next week and take a swab of the wing to look at the probiotic and see what it’s doing, if it has actually stayed the same or if it’s replicating.”

The bats will be re-released into the wild once Lausen has checked on the probiotic. Both she and Dr. Cheeptam are hopeful that they have found a solution that will help protect bats and rebuild the populations around the continent.

To learn more about white-nose syndrome, click here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Jenna Wheeler or call (250) 819-6089 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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