Bats have been a constant motif of Halloween. But today, while vampires, zombies and pumpkins continue their popularity, the mysterious winged creature of horror stories and deep dark caves is in danger of disappearing forever.
Instead of engendering fear of blood-sucking fanged monsters that see in pitch dark, the fear is now for the bats themselves. And the monster in this story isn’t Dracula, although it thrives in chilly darkness and drains its victims of life. It’s a fungus. Pseudogymnoascus destructans causes white nose syndrome (WNS), a deadly and contagious infection that has killed millions of hibernating bats across eastern North America since 2007. No means to eradicate the fungus has been found, and WNS is coming west.
Microbiology researchers at TRU are collaborating with bat biologists in a rush to learn more about the winter habits of western hibernating bat species, and find ways to prevent or lessen the affects of the fungus before white nose syndrome arrives.
Dr. Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham, a faculty member in Biological Sciences at TRU, has been mentoring undergraduate student researchers to study hibernacula—caves where bats hibernate in the winter—alongside her research into microorganisms from extreme cave habitats. Partnering with bat biologist and TRU adjunct professor Dr. Cori Lausen and ecologist team leader Sarah Boyle of Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Park, Cheeptham’s students are engaging in new research to test for the presence of P. destructans in caves in the west, and gain a greater understanding of the current fungi and other microorganisms living in these caves.
“This is a great case of collaboration between microbiologists and bat biologists, as well as BC parks and the caving community, to help us understand microbial ecology that could affect aspects of bat biology in these cave habitats,” says Cheeptham.
The cold-loving P. destructans fungus attacks bats when they are most vulnerable, infecting them once they settle in caves by the hundreds or thousands, to hibernate for the winter months. Spread from bat to bat by contact, and by humans who can carry spores from cave to cave, it attacks the bat’s wing membranes, ears and muzzles, causing a white growth on the bat’s face which gives the syndrome its name. WNS is believed to cause the bat to burn through its energy reserves more quickly and then starve to death while the infection spreads to its neighbours. BC has a greater diversity of bat species than eastern Canada, and it’s not known yet how severely these species will be affected by WNS.
Last year, microbiology student Baylee Out joined a research team in Glacier National Park to collect fungus samples in the Nakimu cave system, a suspected hibernacula, for her Undergraduate Research Experience Award Program (UREAP) project. Her research, testing the samples for the presence of P. destructans, was the first study of the microbial ecology of the Nakimu caves and an attempt to detect the fungus as a preventative measure, to identify and protect hibernacula that are still uninfected.
Conservation efforts to protect the endangered little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), northern myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) and other BC bats so far include managing access to caves by humans. Out’s fungal analysis of soil samples and environmental swabs will provide information to the park to help make decisions about allowing cavers into the Nakimu system, and a baseline of current fungi in the caves and the roles they play in cave ecology. She is currently writing a paper with Boyle and Cheeptham to share her results.
Trying to anticipate the arrival of white nose syndrome in BC is the focus of microbiology student Laura Smylie’s UREAP project, supervised by Cheeptham, Lausen and adjunct professor Dr. Ken Wagner. Smylie tested soil samples from bat hibernacula in Horne Lake Caves in BC and Rat’s Nest Cave, Alberta, which currently see high traffic from cavers and tourists who may carry fungal spores from infected caves elsewhere.
“This study conducted by TRU is part of a pioneering study with collaborators across various faculties of science, as well as participating cavers across BC,” says Smylie. Cavers collected the environmental samples, and BC and Alberta Provincial Wildlife Disease sections and the Animal Health Centre, BC Ministry of Agriculture are also partnering on the project.“From what I have found in the recent literature, culturing P. destructans spores from environmental soil samples to try and monitor the spread of the fungus has not been something previously investigated. Being part of such a unique research study during my undergraduate degree is an incredible and exciting experience.”
While Smylie’s research will help identify uninfected caves to be protected, student Mitchell Johnson is investigating environmental factors that may influence the winter activity of some species of bats, differences in behaviour that could be an advantage to BC species soon faced with WNS in their caves.
Halloween is the time of year when bats are making their way to winter roosts. Observing winter behaviour of western bats is critical to learning how to prevent WNS from decimating bat populations here as it has in the east, so biologists urge the public to report winter sightings of bats to the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada ([email protected]) or the BC Bat Action Taskforce ([email protected]).
Ice caves and drug discovery
The crawling dead
With Halloween approaching, many people have zombies and vampires on their minds. So does Biological Sciences faculty member Dr. Rob Higgins, though his zombies and vampires are of the ant variety.
Higgins, an ant expert whose specialty is invasive European fire ants, reveals there’s a BC ant that recently became a zombie, and another ant that lives as a vampire.
Zombie ants get their name from a parasitic fungus called Pandora that takes over the ant’s brain. Once infected, the zombie ant climbs vegetation, bites firmly at the highest point, and then dies, enabling the fungus to spread by casting its spores through the area and infecting more ants.
Higgins discovered a zombie ant in Williams Lake, BC this June. It’s the first time the Pandora fungus has been seen in Canadian ants and possibly a new type of the fungus, preying on the Formica podzolica ant.
Vampire ants (Stigmatomma oregonense), also called Dracula ants, survive entirely on blood from their own young. While the adults of other species of ants sometimes get around their inability to eat solid food by consuming the regurgitations of their larvae, the Dracula larvae don’t regurgitate, so the adults eat by draining their blood.
“The vampire ants are a fascinating group to study because they are most closely related to the evolutionary stem group of ants,” says Higgins. “It is possible that the first ants to evolve were vampire ants.”
This summer Higgins received a one-time $100,000 grant from the BC Inter-Ministry Invasive Species Working Group to help develop ways to control European fire ants, which are becoming a problem in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, and southern part of Vancouver Island.
Fire ants thrive in moist areas like irrigated lawns and gardens, and when a nest is disturbed, often swarm and sting. Yards and parks can become unusable as a result, because of safety concerns for people and pets.
“We are still examining control at a fairly coarse level, quickly trying to assess the viability of different approaches,” says Higgins. “Failures have been much more common than successes but we have seen one approach working well when dealing with these ants in small areas.”
Where most of us might see a nuisance, Higgins sees an ingenious group of creatures. “Ants are one of the most successful groups of animals on the planet. Their social structure and high competition with other ants has made them brutally efficient,” he says.
“It has been argued that humans are more ecologically related to ants than any other organism as we both live in large cities and must contend with many of the same issues that arise from managing large populations.”
He says whether they’re vampire, zombie, European fire or other ants—an estimated 20,000 species exist worldwide—they have a role to play in the world.
Friday, October 31st is the last day to formally withdraw from a semester course without it affecting your GPA.
If you believe you are not going to complete a course successfully, a withdrawal is an option. A “W” will appear on your transcript however, there will be no refund.
If you are considering withdrawal, you are urged to consult with an Academic Advisor or a Counsellor.
Students who have received funding to attend classes, for example Student Loans, Interest Free Status, ABESAP, Scholarship, Band funding, should consult with their funding provider to ensure they maintain their funding eligibility.
Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and the Open Learning Faculty Association (TRUOLFA) have reached a tentative agreement negotiated under the Economic Stability Mandate.
This five-year tentative agreement covers approximately 240 TRUOLFA members who provide education services through TRU’s distance education program. The Open Learning faculty provide instruction on 57 Open Learning programs, from trades to traditional academics and a number of interdisciplinary choices.
Approximately 200,000 public-sector employees are now covered by tentative or ratified agreements under the Economic Stability Mandate. Overall, this represents about two-thirds of all unionized public-sector employees in B.C.
The government’s Economic Stability Mandate provides public-sector employers the ability to negotiate longer-term agreements within a fixed fiscal envelope, and offers employees an opportunity to participate in the province’s economic growth through the Economic Stability Dividend. Settlements are expected to be unique and to reflect priorities negotiated to ensure labour stability and affordable service delivery throughout B.C.
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