Bio honours student studies bat behaviour, immunity

Emily Beaton’s research may show whether bolder bats are at greater risk of deadly disease

Bats play a critical role in North American ecosystems but now face extinction in certain areas due to a crippling disease known as white nose syndrome. Emily Beaton is a fourth-year honours student in the department of biology who spent most of her summer doing research on bats at the University of Winnipeg. Beaton is co-supervised by Suzie Currie at Mount Allison and by Craig Willis at the University of Winnipeg. She studied bat physiology, immunity and behaviour, and her research may have significant implications for white nose syndrome, which has killed at least six million bats in North America since it was brought from Europe in 2006.
White nose syndrome is hypothe-sized to cause bats to wake up more frequently during their winter hibernation and use up their fat stores. The disease is characterized by a white fungal growth on bats’ noses and wings, which irritates them and wakes them from hibernation. Since there is no food available to them in the winter, bats that wake up due to the fungus starve and die. Pregnant bats are particularly affected as they must have enough energy reserves to gestate and give birth. White nose syndrome was first identified in Ontario and Quebec in 2010, and has since spread to New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia. The disease continues to spread farther west and is expected to soon reach Manitoba.
“It only takes one bat bringing a couple of fungal spores to spread the disease to places where the disease did not exist in the first place,” said Beaton.
Bats congregate to mate, often in groups of thousands, in a particular area known as a swarming site. Beaton collected her bats at one of these swarming sites, near Lake St. George Provincial Park, about three hours north of Winnipeg, Man. Beaton said she caught her bats using two traps at a cave entrance. The first trap diverted the bats’ flight and caused them to fly into the second one, from which they were collected.
Beaton said she tested these bats for differences in their personalities to see if these correlated with immune-system function. Bats were placed in boxes, and each was allowed to explore its interior for a certain period of time. A video camera captured the bats’ movements inside the box and allowed Beaton to determine how bold or shy they were. She scored certain movements to determine where the bats fell on a bold-to-shy continuum. She hypothesizes that bats’ personalities influences rate of infection and that bolder bats encounter more pathogens.
“Bats are the main nocturnal predators of insects in North America, so … bats are something that’s going to help decrease the number of mosquitoes and pests,” said Beaton. “It’s a huge cost to not only our ecosystem in terms of managing how many insects are out there … but also to our own society in terms of our economy and the agricultural industry.”
Beaton said her research has provided valuable experience, from working with bats to learning from other students. She was first interested in bats when she started reading a series of books about this unique creature at the age of eight.
“I have always known I wanted to study bats in some way. Bats are incredible creatures and they do have personalities that influence how they adapt to their environment. When I heard about white nose syndrome, I was concerned and wanted to contribute to bat conservation,” said Beaton.
As a part of her research, Beaton and her research team translated a French website into English which maps sites of bat colonies called “Neighbourhood Bat Watch.”

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