The bats of Happy Valley Forest
Little brown bat. Wildlife should only be handled by professionals with the correct permits. (Photo by Toby Thorne)
Flying quietly in the darkness of the night, well after the sun has set on Ontario’s Happy Valley Forest, are some of Canada’s smallest mammals. Big brown and silver-haired bats make their way from roost to roost, catching an in-flight dinner of insects along the way.
These often misunderstood mammals are facing many threats, the most detrimental being white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a fast-spreading fungus that thrives in cold environments, such as in bat roosts. The fungus grows on a contaminated bat’s nose and on other parts of their bodies, including their wings. WNS isn't always visible to the naked eye, but its effects on bat populations is as clear as day.
Currently, bats with WNS have been confirmed in 31 states and five Canadian provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, Quebec and Ontario. There are eight species of bats in Ontario, and four of these species (little brown myotis, eastern small footed myotis, northern myotis and tri-colour bat) have been provincially listed as species at risk due to the impact of WNS. Big brown bats can be impacted by the fungus, but currently WNS in this species doesn’t seem to be as severe. Bats that migrate south to overwinter are not impacted by WNS; however, they do face other threats, such as light pollution, development, and recreation and habitat loss.
By protecting areas such as Happy Valley Forest, NCC is helping to create viable habitat in which bats can hibernate, forage and raise their young. All Ontario bats spend time in trees: on the outside of trees or in the foliage. Mature forests are incredibly important habitat for these winged mammals. Some species, including big brown and little brown myotis, use larger, dead standing trees (or chicots) to roost in. These chicots are a typical feature of the older, mature forests that can be found in Happy Valley Forest.
In addition to protecting vital habitat, NCC is working with the Toronto Zoo on their Native Bat Conservation Program. This program involves monitoring bats in Ontario to learn more about their populations. Since these elusive animals are often difficult to monitor, as their roosts are hidden away and they are out mostly at night, echolocation is essential to researchers studying these enigmatic species. Most bats, including all in Canada, use echolocation to identify nearby objects (obstacles such as trees and buildings, insects and other bats). The frequency of their calls are so high they are inaudible to humans. By using an acoustic monitoring device, conservation biologists are able to record and analyze echolocation signals to identify bat species without actually seeing them.
Captured through acoustic data, there has been recent evidence of myotis species of bats, as well as red and hoary bats in the Happy Valley Forest area.
NCC hopes to gain a better understanding of the bats that live in Happy Valley Forest and how we can better protect their habitat. Further research is planned for 2018 in order to obtain more information on these mysterious mammals.
Over the past 30 years, NCC has helped protect more than 3,500 acres (1,400 hectares) on the Oak Ridges Moraine, of which almost 773 acres (312 hectares) are in Happy Valley Forest, thanks to many donors, including the Government of Canada through the Natural Areas Conservation Program.