When Ally McCutcheon chose to do a major college project on bats, she didn’t know much about them or their impact on Manitoba’s ecosystem.
But her lack of knowledge didn’t stop her from creating a handbook that has increased awareness and appreciation of the flying mammals throughout Canada.
McCutcheon graduated last year from Assiniboine Community College’s Russ Edwards School of Agriculture and Environment, where she studied land and water management. Before graduating, she and her peers were tasked with completing a “capstone project” — worth one-fifth of their final grades.
“Each student was trying to pick something that we would be interested in doing,” McCutcheon said. “I don’t know why I picked bats. I just thought, you don’t really hear about them, so I thought it’d be kind of interesting to learn more about them.”
Six separate species of bats call Manitoba home, including the big brown bat, found across the province in caves and tunnels; the hoary bat, which roosts on trees in woodland forests; the silver-haired bat, which lives inside tree cavities or bark crevices in forests; the little brown bat, which prefers to shelter in human structures, woodpiles, tree hollows and caves; the eastern red bat, which likes to roost in trees; and the northern long-eared bat, found in forests with spruce and pine trees.
For her capstone project, McCutcheon decided to compile and produce a handbook on bats in Manitoba and Ontario. Bats that can be found in Ontario include the little brown bat, the big brown bat, the eastern red bat, the hoary bat, the silver-haired bat, the northern long-eared bat, the tri-coloured bat and the eastern small-footed bat.
Along with a list of these bats, McCutcheon’s reference manual has facts about the life cycles of bats and the issues that are currently facing their well-being, including white nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed in excess of six million bats across the northeastern United States and Canada, including Manitoba.
Named for the white fungal growth that can be seen on the nose and wings of infected bats, white nose syndrome was first identified in a cave in New York in 2006. In May 2018, the province of Manitoba announced that white nose syndrome was found to be present in the province’s bat population.
“I kind of just wanted to spread the word on it because I had not heard about white nose syndrome before I started doing all this research,” McCutcheon said.
During the course of her research, McCutcheon also discovered that bats in Manitoba were facing threats from habitat loss and misconceptions about their nature. Bats have a bad reputation due to their inclusion in popular culture as icons of horror in the guise of the vampire bat, which doesn’t exist in Canada.
All Canadian bats subsist on a diet of insects and arthropods — invertebrate animals with an exoskeleton, a segmented body and paired joint appendages.
“Once I started doing research, I learned that the majority of bats are insectivores. They don’t even suck blood. There’s only a few species that actually do.”
McCutcheon hopes her handbook, which includes information on white nose syndrome, will bring more attention to the disease.
“It might help [people] report more sightings, and then that’ll help researchers understand where these bat populations are and try to help with fungal disease.”
James Hood, McCutcheon’s former instructor at Assiniboine, isn’t surprised that her manual is still being talked about a year after she submitted it for her capstone project.
“That was the whole purpose of her capstone project — not only to raise awareness, but raise informed awareness,” Hood said.
“She has a section where she talks about the benefits of bats. Anyone who has ever lived in Manitoba and been plagued by mosquitoes [should know] that bats are important.”
The quality of McCutcheon’s work is indicative of the calibre of students that graduate from Assiniboine ever year, Hood said. Capstone projects, he added, are a way for them to truly delve into something that could have lasting impacts for the wider world.
“The students are here to try to make an improvement, and find something that is near and dear to them, or something that becomes near and dear to them,” Hood said. “They try to make a difference that way.”
Although McCutcheon, who is now a soil sampling technician, isn’t working with bats, she remains interested in their welfare and encourages others to as well. During her capstone project, she worked with Neighbourhood Bat Watch — a conservation group that is spreading the word on white nose syndrome — to circulate her research.
By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 23, 2023