Cave closures are helping to protect Alberta’s more ‘bat-brained’ residents

For most people, picturing Alberta brings to mind majestic mountains and rolling plains – caves aren’t high up on the list. But we’ve got lots of them – and the wildlife populations that go with them.

Photo of a little brown bat

The world’s second oldest bat on record – dubbed ‘the old guy’ by Environment and Parks staff – lived in Alberta. Photo credit: Chuck Priestly.

Bats are definitely in this category. Although they tend to stay out of sight, nine different species of bats call our province home – and the second oldest known bat in the world lived in Alberta as well (the oldest known lived in Russia).

Bats prefer to hibernate in cool, dark and moist spaces, which makes our cave systems perfect winter homes for them. But these caves also appeal to many other species – including human beings.

It’s easy to understand why cave exploring is popular: it’s like discovering a whole new world. But even careful spelunkers can unknowingly introduce new dangers into our caves. That’s why two of our caves – Cadomin Cave at the Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park near Hinton and Wapiabi Cave northwest of Nordegg – are closed to humans.

These closures are necessary to help stop the spread of something called white-nose syndrome.

  • What it is: white-nose syndrome involves a fungus that disturbs bats during torpor – a state similar to hibernation.
  • How it works: the fungus grows in the skin of bats, which causes them to wake up from torpor during the winter, when their main prey – insects – are in short supply. As a result of this, they often end up starving to death.
  • How it spreads: once the fungus enters the bat population, it spreads from animal to animal, and there’s very little we can do to stop it.
Photo of a little brown bat in New York with white nose syndrome.

The name of the syndrome comes from the appearance that it gives the noses of infected bats. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

The disease is spread by spores, which are virtually invisible once they attach themselves to clothing and footwear. A massive outbreak in eastern Canada and the U.S. has already killed 90 to 95 per cent of bats in areas hit by the disease. There’s a lot of traffic across Alberta’s borders from these places – which means an increased risk that people coming across the border may carry spores into the province.

Researchers in both the U.S. and Canada are hard at work right now investigating solutions to the problem, and many avenues are being explored, including the use of anti-fungal bacteria. Until a treatment can be developed, our goal is to keep the fungus out of Alberta – and cave closures are one of the ways we can do this.

It’s important that we do. While some people don’t find them very cuddly, bats are an undeniably important part of our ecosystems. How? Like spiders – another species that isn’t particularly appreciated by the public – bats help keep Alberta’s bug population under control. This is important for Alberta’s economy as well as its ecosystems: the more bats, the fewer pesticides farmers need to use to grow their crops successfully.

Currently, there have been no outbreaks of white-nose syndrome in Alberta – and by obeying stated cave closures, you can help us keep it that way.

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