A pathologist with the Atlantic Veterinary College says a bat recently found dead in Bonshaw, P.E.I., shows signs of a deadly fungus that has wiped out entire colonies of bats throughout North America.
"I would say that we're probably 99 per cent sure this is going to be the first confirmed case of bat white-nose syndrome on Prince Edward Island," said Dr. Scott McBurney, of the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC).
White-nose syndrome is a fungal infection that spreads through colonies of bats. The fungus causes a disruption in the bats internal clocks, forcing them out of their hibernation-like state more frequently and earlier than usual, said McBurney.
As a result, many bats end up freezing, depleting their energy reserves and starving to death.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners estimate as many as 6.7 million North American bats have died as a result of white-nose syndrome.
"I'm saddened and I'm depressed, to be perfectly honest with you, because this is the most catastrophic wildlife disease that's affected a wildlife population — at least in my lifetime. It's catastrophic because it's affecting so many species of bats, and because of the level of mortality associated with the infection," McBurney said. "So it's just horrible,"
The fungus has spread through bat populations in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec — in some cases killing entire colonies.
Researchers at the New Brunswick Museum last year reported nearly all of the 6,000 bats living in the province's largest bat colony were wiped out.
In New York state, where the fungus was first found in North America, 90 per cent of the bat population has died, according to a U.S. National Wildlife Health Centre report published in 2010.
A decline in the bat population affects other species in an ecosystem, said Rosemary Curley, a P.E.I. wildlife biologist.
"These bats have been providing quite a service to us in removing insects including agricultural pests, and they'll be missed when they're gone," she said.
Curley said one bat will eat hundreds of mosquitoes in a single night.
If this bat does indeed have white-nose syndrome, Curley said there is very little to stop the spread of the disease.
"Not very much can be done, because we can't treat the injured animals. Most of them are going to die unseen," she said.
Bats are not usually found overwintering on P.E.I.
Curley said it's possible recent winds blew the bat to the Island from New Brunswick. But there is a chance bats are spending their winters on P.E.I.
McBurney said no matter where the bat came from, the fungus is a problem for all Maritime bat populations.
"If bats do migrate back and forth, no matter where they're dying whether it's New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or P.E.I. — they're all our bats anyways."
McBurney is asking Islanders to report any winter sightings of either live or dead bats to the AVC. He said it will help them determine if bats are hibernating on the Island.
Bats can live between 30 and 35 years and have a relatively low birth rate, with only one offspring born every year. So it could take many years for the population to recover, scientists have said.