"Bat Box" Heaters Could Save Animals' Lives

March 5, 2009

Solar-powered heaters could help save the lives of bats infected with a deadly fungus, a new computer model suggests.

The fungus, a member of the Geomyces genus, has caused deaths upward of 80 percent in several bat populations in the northeastern United States and Canada. Scientists haven't figured out a way to stop it from spreading.

(Related: "Mysterious Ailment Could Wipe Out U.S. Northeast Bats.")

One hypothesis is that the fungus rouses bats from their winter hibernation more often than usual.

As with many mammals, the body temperatures of bats drop dramatically during hibernation. When roused, the animals have to use precious calories to raise their body temperatures again.

"We think they're starving to death, and there's a couple ways that can happen," said lead study author Justin Boyles of Indiana State University.

"Arousing more often is one of those ways."

To test this idea, Boyles and his colleagues simulated the hibernation patterns of about a thousand little brown bats.

The model showed that more frequent rousing could indeed cause the kinds of high bat mortality rates being observed in the wild.

The research also suggests that many affected bats could survive the winter if small areas in their caves were warmed with artificial heaters. By raising the surrounding air temperature, the bats would need to burn fewer calories to warm back up.

When bats rouse from hibernation, they naturally fly to warm spots. When the animals are ready to hibernate again, they leave those regions.

Craig Willis of the University of Winnipeg, who worked with Boyle on the study, built a prototype "bat box" that can serve as a warm haven for roused bats.

"They're basically like bird houses. We're insulating them really well and putting heaters in them," Boyles said.

The bat boxes run on car batteries charged via solar panels. The team plans to test their contraption soon in a small bat population in Canada.

Findings detailed in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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