AB-bats-Sitter-web (1)

The vanishing: my search for a beloved animal, after millions of them die

A former biologist returns to the Alberta badlands to search for the species he was captivated by as a child, which has now been decimated across North America. Was he too late?

In the early evening on a mid-summer’s day I pulled my borrowed SUV off Highway 10 just south of the Alberta badlands community of Rosedale, where the highway crosses the Red Deer River. The day’s heat lay coiled in the valleys, striking with dry, viperish bites at exposed skin.  

When I was growing up in Calgary, my family made regular summer pilgrimages to nearby Drumheller, home of the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We sometimes stayed in Rosedale, where I mucked around in sandy, desert watercourses called arroyos. I hunted fossils, searched for (but never found) frogs and imagined rattlesnakes in every whisper of the dry grass. We camped in green vales of cottonwood shade on the banks of the Red Deer River, and pretended the mosquitoes weren’t so bad, although they were. 

A road winds in a valley bottom in Alberta badlands

Of my childhood dusks, the best part was the bats. Black arrows blinking and darting like aerial morse code, cutting low over the brown water, stunning mayflies with a hypersonic burst of echolocation before catching them. I never knew where the bats came from, only that at some point in the evening they would materialize, writing themselves across the sky as if to signal the end of the dayshift and the beginning of the night. 

Decades later, in my mid-30s, a mixture of curiosity and homesickness had brought me from Vancouver Island back to the Alberta badlands in search of those bats I’d seen as a boy, but I was beginning to grow uneasy. In eastern North America, bats favour caves and mines, but in the Canadian West — in the landscapes of my childhood — they live under bridges like tiny flying fairy-tale trolls. Over half of the bridges in the West harbour bats. I’d spent the day driving between bridges along the Red Deer River, looking for signs of them. But by the time I’d made it to Rosedale, all I’d found were coyote and pronghorn prints, the discarded skin of a rattlesnake (thrilling my childhood self) and a man named Del who was snoozing out the worst of the day’s heat in the shade. I had found no bats, nor any evidence of them.  

Pink-hued clouds over the Alberta badlands
The canyons and coulees of the Alberta badlands are home to a variety of species, including Prairie rattlesnakes, prickly pear cacti, pronghorns — and bats. But with an invasive disease spreading rapidly, the night skies are emptier than ever before.

Rosedale was my last stop for the day. This was where the bats of my boyhood lived, perhaps since the earliest bridge was built nearly a century ago. I bushwhacked through a thick stand of wolf willow separating me from the bridge, the dusty pale green leaves turned a sharp white gold beneath the slanting sun. Breaking through the green wall, I entered a patch of cool brown dirt beneath the bridge deck on the west bank of the river. Water lapped at the concrete piles. I was alone, but for the polished Y-stick of some absent fisherman’s pole holder, stabbed into the ground beside a “No Fishing” sign. There was hardly even any graffiti, only a single scrawled phrase “I love Michelle, 2005.” It seemed desperate and somewhat sad: a story told to no one. In the darkness, I flicked on my flashlight and moved up the bank, to the underside of the bridge, where the seams of highway above joined the foundations below. 

The bridge deck muted the sounds of approaching traffic until the cars were right overhead, and the short sharp roar of trucks rolling through made me jump. It was hard to believe any creature would pick this spot to sleep. I let the flashlight’s beam play across the dark and dusty depths of the bridge. Cobwebs above, crushed empties below.

I had come home hoping to see bats. Now I feared I had come too late. 

II.

For the last 18 years, bats in North America have been dying in the millions, victims of an invasive disease called white-nose syndrome. It first surfaced in February 2006, in pictures taken by an amateur caver in Howe Caverns, a kitschy tourist trap of linked caves in upstate New York. The photographs are blurry, disturbing. Taken in a pitch-black cave, the lighting is overexposed in places, underexposed in others. Shapes blend with shadows in an unsteady dance of dark and light. The pictures show a cave floor. Littering the ground are small brown lumps, streaked here and there with white. They look like clumps of matted hair yanked from shower drains. Further inspection reveals them to be bats. Thousands and thousands of dead bats. 

Close-ups of the dead bats show their brown and charcoal bodies laced with an unusual white fungus. It rimes their thick chest fur like December hoarfrost. It laces their thin, delicate wings in patches and streaks. The mystery disease was given the name white-nose syndrome from the way the fungus grows into beards and moustaches of white around the bats’ snouts, like they’d just dunked their whole face into a latte. 

By spring 2007, the pictures were pinging the inboxes of bat biologists across the Americas. Within a year of the first sighting, the mysterious fungus had been found in nine states and four provinces. It had appeared in hundreds of hibernacula — the places bats hibernate — and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead bats. In places where bats had previously been common, they were becoming difficult to find. Wading through caves, knee-deep in death, a grinding fear descended among biologists. The question on everyone’s lips was this: will this thing kill every bat in North America before we even know what it is? 

III.

I first heard of white-nose syndrome in 2012. I was in my early 20s, recently graduated, and working in the cloud mountains of Honduras as a wildlife biologist with a team researching another invasive disease: chytrid fungus. Chytrid affects amphibians, clogging the permeable, breathable membrane of their skin with fungal spores and suffocating them. Some animals slough off their skin, degloving themselves in an effort to breathe. Since 1993 the fungus has been killing frogs across Australia and the Americas. It has no cure and has been implicated in the extinction of at least 90 species in the last 30 years. 

Once seen, they’re hard to unsee, and that seeing contains a quiet wonder: the dawning awareness the world around us contains more worlds than we often consider; that unknowable creatures with their own lives and languages skirt the edges of ours, making homes in the gaps we leave. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we’ve built our lives in their gaps. They were here first, after all.
Silhouetter of closeup plants with sunset in the background in Alberta badlands

Tropical frogs, like bats, are nocturnal, so the amphibian team and the neighbouring bat researchers kept odd hours. In the quiet hours before dawn, the darkest of the night, I was sitting at a fire, nursing a coffee and trying to dry out after a long evening’s work of surveying frogs in jungle streams, when a bat researcher dropped in. He looked haggard, shell-shocked. It was a look I’d seen before, and a look I’d worn in my first weeks of chytrid work: a body trying and failing to wrap itself around such volumes of senseless death. 

He’d flown in recently from New York. He asked if we had heard about white-nose syndrome. We said no. Then he told us. 

IV.

White-nose syndrome kills indirectly. To survive North American winters, when their insect food is unavailable, bats have evolved a physiological state called torpor (the extended version is called hibernation). Torpor is a suspended animation, a reduction of body temperature which enables bats to live off their stored fat reserves, like a survivalist in a desert bunker. But those supplies are rationed. Waking up from torpor prematurely burns a great deal of energy. Every time a bat is forced to wake up it costs it up to 30 days of maximum hibernation time. Wake up two or three times in winter, and you won’t have enough fat reserves to make it until spring. The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome is an irritant, forcing bats to wake from torpor over and over. Exhausted, the bats die of starvation and dehydration. They die of exposure in the long, hungry nights of late winter. Some, seemingly driven mad by the irritation, collide with cave walls, breaking their own necks.

The life cycles of bats are slow and complex and still mostly unknown. Of Canada’s 18 species, perhaps five are well-studied enough to draw conclusions about — to say we truly know them, as much as we can know any species other than ourselves. 

The fungus which causes white-nose syndrome, called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, was introduced to North America accidentally, most likely by cavers or tourists. It originates in Europe, where it coevolved with bats, and infects them without killing them. But in North America, where bats have no defences, the disease was spreading as a lethal wave, washing over the continent year-by-year. Infected bats may carry the fungus as far as 900 kilometres in a year, creating a flood of environmental havoc, spreading in all directions from its Albany epicentre. 

In 2012, as we sat around a tropical campfire hearing a ghost story come to life, white-nose syndrome had been confirmed as far south as Alabama and as far west as Missouri. In Canada, the disease had reached Wawa, Ont., on the eastern shores of Lake Superior, and penetrated deep into the hinterlands of central Quebec.

Clouds and rays of sunlight in an electric sky over a prairies landscape
Bats have long been part of the living skies in the Canadian Prairies. For a while, scientists thought the region might be spared from the spread of white-nose syndrome, hypothesizing that the fungus was perhaps no match for cold Prairies winters. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

On spread maps from that year, the entirety of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia was already deep red: occupied territory. Millions of bats were dead. In parts of the east, what was once one of the most abundant animals on the continent was becoming difficult to find. Up to 98 per cent of infected bats died. Studies at the time predicted that within 15 years — by 2027 — bats in the east could be regionally extinct.

Around the campfire we had no solace to offer the bat researcher, only a kind of companionship of despair. 

Since 2012, the fungus has shown almost no signs of slowing down. It leaps an average of 320 kilometres a year, flown on the unknowing wings of travelling bats, a white tide spreading ever westward. Indiana and Michigan, soaring over the Great Lakes to Wisconsin and Illinois, Minnesota and the Dakotas, before creeping over the border into Wyoming. It has been found in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave in New York and has leapt across North America, spreading westward at an alarming rate and killing millions of bats in its wake. Video: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

By 2018, white-nose syndrome was found in eight provinces and 33 states. But then, suddenly, the westward spread in Canada seemed to stop, stalling out in Manitoba. Researchers held their breath. Perhaps the fungus couldn’t survive the cold of Prairie winters. Maybe the smaller hibernacula sizes of western bats — narrow, deep rock crevices and buildings instead of massive caves — limited its spread. This was a chance for western bats. But how long would the line hold? 

V.

All told, there are — for now — more than 1,400 bat species in the world. A fifth of all mammal species are bats. They live on every continent except Antarctica and inhabit even the smallest oceanic isles. Fossil records suggest bats have ruled the night for at least 52 million years, and perhaps as many as 70 million. Modern humans, by comparison, are a measly 300,000 years old.  

Canada is home to 18 species all from the family Vespertilionidae, the Latin term for evening. The vesper bats are small and insect-eating. They’re mostly shades of brown and charcoal, with simple noses, soft upturned ears, and the scrunched and gnomic faces of wizened hermits. Ten of Canada’s 18 species belong to the genus Myotis, or the mouse-eared bats. Despite that name, bats shouldn’t be lumped in with rodents. In their biology, they are, in fact, “more like flying grizzly bears.” (A quote I heard from multiple bat researchers.)

Close up of a bat's face
Mouse-eared bats of the genus Myotis like this one, are often viewed as rodents — but in reality they are, mammals scientists say, “more like flying grizzly bears” than mice. Photo: Dave Thomas / Flickr

Unlike rodents, bats have one pup at a time and raise them slowly, the mother teaching them to hunt, to drink from standing water, to migrate and to hibernate. They teach them how to find home, returning to the same roosts year after year for decades. Generations of bats might live together. When foraging, mothers return home to roosts, which may contain a raucous chaos of tens of thousands of screaming, hungry babies. They home in easily on the specific voice of their infant, picking it out of the crowd. Bats are social animals, living in large groups and grooming one another, for they are also fastidiously clean. Vampire bats even share food. When a hungry bat comes home, its neighbours will spit up a tablespoon of blood to pass around in a kind of crimson potluck. The oldest known bat in the world is a Myotis bat from northern Alberta, who was observed alive in 2013 and banded 39 years prior. The life cycles of bats are slow and complex and still mostly unknown. Of Canada’s 18 species, perhaps five are well-studied enough to draw conclusions about — to say we truly know them, as much as we can know any species other than ourselves. 

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Even the most indifferent observer knows their crows from their song sparrows, their blue jays from their snowy owls. But how many among us could tell a tricoloured bat from a silver-haired? A pallid bat from a hoary bat? Or even a little brown bat from a big brown bat? Yet, the little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus — “the mouse-eared light-shunner” — is possibly Canada’s most cosmopolitan animal. 

Little browns are a hardy, charismatic species with a body the size and colour of a ponderosa pinecone and a wingspan just shy of a dinner plate. They roost in caves and mines, in the lightning scars of dead trees and in the fecund hollows of collapsed roots. They roost in houses, factories, offices, under bridges and in culverts. I once heard a researcher refer to them as a “trash species.” As if commonness were to be disdained and not celebrated.

Bales at sunset under a vast colourful Prairies sky
Half of the little brown bat’s global habitat is in Canada, with bats found in rainforests, Prairies, the Alberta badlands and under the midnight sun. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

With all respect to the beaver and the maple leaf, if it were up to me, little brown bats would be Canada’s emblem. Half of the little brown bat’s global habitat is in Canada, and they are found — for now — in every province and territory except Nunavut. They hunker down through Prairie blizzards, weathering the cold in communal huddles deep in the chapped lips of the Alberta badlands. In the steady drip-drip-drip of the Great Bear Rainforest’s cool fern shade, they welcome spring. Up in the North they flicker across the sky like a shadowy ballet beneath the midnight sun. Once, populations of little browns braved nor’easters on the Atlantic coast, though those populations are gone now, victims of white-nose syndrome’s first wave. 

VI.

How many bats has white-nose syndrome killed? The last official estimate is from 2012, when white-nose was judged to have killed between five and seven million bats. After 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service stopped providing estimates. Twelve years have passed since then, and the disease has doubled its geographic spread. Populations of some species, including the little brown bat, have dropped by up to 90 per cent. Of Canada’s 18 species, a third are now endangered or threatened. More alarmingly, studies have found Myotis bats may be particularly impacted by white-nose syndrome. Once among the most abundant animals on the continent, bats are rapidly becoming rare. The night skies of Canada and the northern United States are emptier now than they have been in the last 50 million years — and are becoming emptier by the year. 

There is no cure for white-nose syndrome. Experimental treatments show varying promise. Some are outlandish, impractical on a continental scale — artificially lowering the temperature of caves, or coating hibernacula with fungus-killing chemicals. One suggests hope: a treatment that relies on the inoculation of captured bats with an anti-fungal probiotic, with the aim that those bats will return to their roosts and spread it to their roost mates. It has worked in captive populations and is being wild tested. Whether it will be enough, or can be rolled out in time, remains an unanswered question. 

The potential negative effects for ecosystem health are far-ranging. Bat researchers are quick to point out insectivorous bats each consume between 600 and 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. Without the Rosedale bats running interference, my childhood camping trips along the river would’ve been much less pleasant. The consumption of insects by bats is estimated to provide between US$3.7 billion and US$53 billion in agricultural pest control. Bats might come to our aid in another way, too. As of the summer of 2023, malaria has returned to the continental United States for the first time in decades: the disease was considered  eliminated from the U.S. in the 1950s. Case counts are low, but fuelled by warming climates they might increase. Malaria is a mosquito-borne parasite — a useful time to have a mosquito-annihilating flying grizzly on hand. 

Beyond that, the effects of removing bats from an ecosystem are unknown. Perhaps it could lead to an explosion in insects and insect-born disease, negatively affecting wildlife and livestock, with knock-on effects to the structure and health of forests. Perhaps not. There are many unknowns about bats, and white-nose syndrome threatens to make those unknowns permanent. 

I did not learn to love bats because they ate some bugs that would otherwise bite me. I learned to love them because of their acrobatics, their mastery of the night, the shock and delight of their appearance, sudden and silent in the air. It was wonder that drew me to bats as a boy and wonder that draws me to them now. Bats have coexisted with humans, closely, for tens of thousands of years.
Condensation covers a cluster densely packed bats

I have never found these arguments fully persuasive. They feel like a line-item, an obligation to tick off: here is the economic value of bats, thus proving their right to exist. I worry this is a narrow way of thinking, a shallow way of interacting with the world. I did not learn to love bats because they ate some bugs that would otherwise bite me. I learned to love them because of their acrobatics, their mastery of the night, the shock and delight of their appearance, sudden and silent in the air. It was wonder that drew me to bats as a boy and wonder that draws me to them now. Bats have coexisted with humans, closely, for tens of thousands of years. They are woven within the cultural fabric of our stories. Sometimes negatively — vampires, for instance — but not always. In Chinese traditions, bats are symbols of luck. A part of the Mayan sacred calendar is named after bats. In Islamic stories, it is a bat emerging from his cave on sunless days that lets the faithful know when it is acceptable to end their fast.

Whether we know it consciously or not, bats are embedded in the mosaic of our lives. Their deaths, their ultimate extinctions, shatter one part of the complex mural of relationships that, to me, make human life worth living. I cannot imagine bat-less nights on the river, or the generations of children who will never know the shock and wonder of their sudden appearance in the sky. The death of seven million animals by invasive disease, the permanent rearrangement of Earth’s ecosystems, and the final, fatal disappearance of species that will never reoccur again is reason enough to be concerned. Reason enough to grieve. 

VII.

It takes only a little learning to see their signs, to guess at their presence: small piles of droppings, little clumps of fur. A south-facing crack in the trunk of an aspen tree? Almost certainly the home of a bat family. A slim gap between beam and joist, dark and deep? Happy residence for a bat or three. Standing once outside a grocery store at dusk, I watched 10 or so bats belly out of the neon wreckage of a broken Safeway sign to hunt their way across the parking lot. Once seen, they’re hard to unsee, and that seeing contains a quiet wonder: the dawning awareness the world around us contains more worlds than we often consider; that unknowable creatures with their own lives and languages skirt the edges of ours, making homes in the gaps we leave. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we’ve built our lives in their gaps. They were here first, after all. 

Silhouette of hundreds of bats against orange night sky above a line of human onlookers on a bridge
The sight of bats leaving their roosts in Austin, Texas, draws crowds of fascinated onlookers. Night skies across the world have long been animated with bats. Photo: J. Griffin Stewart / Flickr

Four years. That’s how long the Manitoba line held. Then, in 2022, it collapsed. The fungus leaped across the border, first into Saskatchewan and then Alberta, where it was detected for the first time in samples taken from under the bridges on the Red Deer River.

VIII.

Beneath the Rosedale bridge I sprayed my flashlight beam into every black corner. It had only been a year since the fungus was detected in Alberta. The research suggested major die-offs took longer than that, but so much was still unknown about western bats. Maybe the research was inaccurate. Incomplete. Or maybe the fungus hadn’t stopped at all in Manitoba. Maybe it had been spreading through the West for years, sliding beneath the radar of the hard-working-but-underfunded monitoring programs. None of the other bridges I’d checked that day had any bat sign.

Maybe I had waited too long to come home. 

I turned to go, trailing my flashlight beam across the dirt. Tomorrow I could try another bridge, another river. Then the light picked up a flickering, a glittering semaphore on the ground, like the jewelled eyes of spiders shining out of long grass. It was guano — bat shit — flecked with the indigestible, iridescent wings of their caddisfly prey.

I’d found bats. 

A river snakes through a Valley during an inky twilight with comet visible in the sky over the Alberta badlands
The Red Deer River cuts through the Alberta badlands, where the writer returned to search for the bats he grew to love in childhood. Photo: Universal Images Group / Canadian Press

Dusk happens slowly in the Alberta badlands. Not as a descent but as a rising from the valleys. The sun-lit coulees, in fruit-basket hues of peach, apricot and clementine, leach colour into the sky, diluted among the expanse of clouds. A paint-pot tipped into an ocean. Shadows follow, fingers of darkness creeping up from the clefts and valleys of the land. 

The bats come in a softness without warning. One, five, 20 or more — I lose count. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke says bats fly like “a crack through a tea-cup … splitting the porcelain of evening sky.” Good Canadian that I am, this always reminds me of Leonard Cohen: that crack is how the light gets in. They dart out from the bridge deck, black blurs that zip through the gloaming, flying together and apart, neither the liquid schools of dusk-drunk starlings nor the arrowing dives of lonely birds of prey, altogether something else, altogether their own, filling our nocturnal hours with the silent chatter of 10,000 unheard conversations, a dense and unknowable network of life that arcs across the sky from dusk until dawn. A decade on, 20 years from now, they may be gone, and I will grieve. But in this moment, they are here.

* * *

This piece was written with the support of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Updated on March 6, 2024, at 4:26 p.m. MT: This story has been updated to correct the age of the oldest known bat in Alberta — it was 39 when last observed in 2013, not 49. A reference to bats hibernating under bridges has been removed: western bats use bridges to roost but are not known to hibernate there. The subheading has been also updated to clarify that little brown bat populations have been decimated by white-nose syndrome across North America, not specifically in Alberta. As already noted, the fungus reached Alberta in 2022.

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