On a summer night its not unusual to see bats circling a lamppost, buzzing in and out of the beam as they chase down their insect prey. But when you step away from urban areas, to Whistlers woods, lakes and wetlands, theyre far more difficult to spot.
For three evenings last week a biologist and a bat expert, Tanya Luszcz and Ruth Joy, joined ecologist Bob Brett in a search for bats around Whistler. Sponsored by the Whistler Biodiversity Project and the Whistler Naturalists, the public was invited along one evening to observe the researchers as they catalogued Whistlers night flyers.
The researchers caught several bats in nets, measuring them and examining them to determine their sex and species before gently releasing them back into the wild.
They also used an ultrasonic detector that converts the high pitched sounds bats make to communicate and find prey by echolocation, at frequencies too high to detect by human ear.
The ultrasonic detector can sometimes be used to determine species, usually based on the size of the bat rather than any characteristic to their ecolocation.
According to Brett, who began the Whistler Biodiversity Project last summer, bats are a key indicator species that can be used to determine the ecological value of an area.
"One of the reasons bats are a focus of the biodiversity project right now is because they are associated with habitats that are maybe a little more at risk than habitats of other species, like wetlands, ponds and lakes," said Brett. "They also roost in big old trees, rock outcrops, that kind of thing which is traditionally not as protected as much in urban development. When we find out which bats are using which habitats, the easier it will be to figure out how to manage the land and protect habitat for those bats."
Some of the search areas include Alpha Lake Park and around Nita Lake, as well as local wetlands. One wetland in the Emerald Forest Conservation Area had so many bats that researchers had to pull in their nets because they were catching too many.
All of the locations where bats were discovered will be revisited again in the future to do a more formal study.
"The recent bat study was really just a preliminary pilot study to orient the bat biologists to Whistler and get an idea where the best places might be to concentrate our activities in the future," said Brett. "Whistler is big and its very easy to spend five or 10 days looking for something and not getting a lot of results, so were doing our best to narrow down the hotspots and the places where we get the most results most effectively."
So far the study has yielded two distinct species, including Little Brown Bats and Yuma Myotis, although Brett has heard reports of other species in the area. He also believes its possible that they will find rare or endangered species like the Keens Myotis and Townsends Big Eared Bat, which are currently Red Listed.
"Theres no doubt there are a lot of bats in Whistler," he explained, "but we dont know if there are more or less than in the past. We dont know if any of them are endangered, and if they have the type of habitat they need."
The Biodiversity Project is compiling existing data on habitats and species found in Whistler, while adding to the data by bringing in experts from around the province. Information has already been collected on trees and plants, mushrooms, dragonflies, frogs and amphibians, and now bats. In addition, Brett has access to records on everything from bears to resident and migratory birds through local experts.
The project has been funded to date by the municipality, as well as grants from the Community Foundation of Whistler and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment.
By knowing where species live, Brett says it will be easier to preserve their habitats. In addition, the inventory will help to locate and manage any introduced species like certain weeds and frogs that displace local species.
The next phase of the amphibian study is set to get underway on Aug. 24. Brett is asking anyone with any information on frogs, toads, snakes, salamanders and lizards to get in touch with him at email@example.com to assist the researchers. He would also like to know about bats and other species of interest for the inventory.
"You cant beat local knowledge for that," said Brett. "The people who live here know a lot more than researchers do when they only get to spend maybe two days a year going over the same ground."