Alberta’s bat population now has some solid research on its side debunking the myth that the flying mammals are disease carriers.
Using the carcasses of hoary and silver-haired bats killed by wind turbines in Southern Alberta, researchers at the University of Calgary and the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta found the rate of rabies among bats is surprisingly low.
“There’s a stigma that bats are highly diseased,” said Brandon Klug, a.k.a Bat Boy, who is the lead author of a paper recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.
“I think most of the time people just think they’re gross vermin.”
Previous studies suggested about 10% of bats taken in for testing by the public are infected with rabies, though certain species – including hoary bats – are said to have incidence rates as high as 30% said Klug.
But his team’s research into 217 carcasses showed less than one per cent had rabies.
Klug said high infection rates recorded previously stemmed from the fact diseased bats are more likely to come into contact with humans – either due to weakness or aggressive tendencies caused by rabies – and therefore are more likely to become part of a testing sample group.
But in a healthy, wild population of bats, regardless of species, very few are actually diseased, said Klug.
The team also reviewed literature on reported bat rabies over the past 56 years.
Article co-author Erin Baerwald said the rabies study was an offshoot of research into wind turbine bat deaths, as the team saw an opportunity to examine hundreds of carcasses.
Testing for rabies, she said, would require researchers to kill bats so the fact they already had a decent sample of “elusive” species that would have been hard to capture launched the research.
Klug and Baerwald said it’s important to change public perception of bats as they are crucial to the ecosystem.
They can eat the equivalent of their weight in insects each night, which controls the populations of bugs.
There are at least nine bat species in Alberta.
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