In today’s post, intern biologist Michelle Lawrence gives us an insider’s look at Killarney’s “nightlife” and shares how staff are working to protect the park’s bat populations.
Some have called Killarney Provincial Park “the crown jewel of the provincial park system,” and it’s not hard to see why.
With white quartzite mountains and bright blue lakes, Killarney is truly a sight to behold. In the Killarney desert, the white pine grows, lives and dies; Moose eat water lilies; and the forests and wetlands are full of warblers and other songbirds.
But when the sun sets, not everyone in the park goes to sleep…
The “nightlife” of Killarney
The park features a bright night sky that experiences little influence from human light sources. Killarney recently became the first Ontario provincial park to receive Dark Sky Reserve designation from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
It’s worth staying up to see the sky full of stars, but what happens when the sun sets and you crawl into your tent?
The “night shift” takes over.
The Milky Way can often be seen in the Killarney night sky
Barred Owls make their haunting calls, often right at the George Lake campground. The poor whips of the east sing and sing… and sing. A chorus of Spring Peepers may sound. Moths flutter during the night in search of a mate.
And bats, one of the most misunderstood “creatures of the night,” leave their refuge.
Here in Killarney, we love our bats.
The next time you’re attending a late-night program at an amphitheater or sitting around a campfire, look up: You might be lucky enough to see a bat flying overhead.
Little brown bat on the wing
This is not an uncommon thing in the park. Killarney is home to large numbers of little brown bats during the summer months.
We are delighted to have them. Bats are important predators of nocturnal flying insects and a vital part of Killarney’s ecosystems.
Don’t bats spend all their time in caves?
Contrary to popular belief, our bats do not “hang out” in caves all the time.
During the summer months, females seek warm shelters (up to 38 degrees Celsius!) to shelter during the day and raise their young. These shelters are usually corners of trees or buildings where sun exposure outside makes the inside warm.
In Killarney, we found bats perching behind signs and even in tiny gaps in a door frame.
Did you know that moths are one of bats’ favorite foods?
Bats and moths have evolved together for millennia, playing the aerial game of cat and mouse. Moths are full of nutrients that bats, especially mothers with young, need to consume.
Bats use echolocation to “see” their surroundings in the dark: They bounce high-pitched calls off objects, including moths, and those sounds are reflected back to the bat’s ears, allowing it to avoid obstacles and catch moths.
Large-bodied moths such as the one-eyed sphinx, moon, and cecropia provide bats with abundant food and many nutrients. Bats help control populations of moths, whose caterpillars feed on hungry leaves.
A black light with a white sheet is an effective way to attract and observe moths for monitoring purposes or park programs.
The chess game evolves
Some moths can detect bat echolocation calls and have evolved ways to avoid them. Some species simply stop flying and quickly move out of the bat’s flight path. Lunar moths have long “tails” on their hind wings, and these seem to confuse bats that concentrate on the moth’s juicy body.
Surprisingly, some moths even have the ability to make a high-pitched noise that blocks the bat’s sonar, allowing it to escape.
Moth species outnumber butterflies by a ratio of 8 to 1 and are very important ecologically. While they are usually small and rarely seen because they fly at night, moths come in an astonishing variety of shapes, colors and patterns.
Scientists have also discovered that some moths even have stealth technology! As we mentioned above, some moth species can detect echolocation because they have evolved ears.
However, most moths are deaf, so they have evolved to be hairy. The fur absorbs the bat’s echolocation calls, making the moth virtually invisible to bats.
We need to protect our bats
Little brown bats were once incredibly abundant. We are now at risk of losing them to white nose syndrome.
White-nose syndrome affects hibernating bats by causing them to wake up more frequently and search for food and water when they are not available. This burns valuable fat reserves and eventually leads to the death of the bat.
This disease is caused by a non-native, cold-loving fungus that was first identified in New York State in 2006. It has spread rapidly eastward and into Canada and has killed approximately 6 million bats!
How is Killarney helping?
During the summer, bats are not as susceptible to white-nose syndrome. The fungus that causes the disease thrives in the cool, moist conditions that can be found inside caves.
A researcher checks for fungal damage on a bat’s wing
Additionally, the fungus cannot survive a bat’s body temperature during the summer, but when the bat lowers its body temperature during hibernation, the fungus can take hold.
For this reason, Killarney wants to make the park a better home for bats during the summer by providing them with new summer homes. We hope that white-nose syndrome survivors can grow the little brown bat population again.
The park’s new experimental bat house
This summer, bat researchers from the University of Winnipeg visited the park and installed a heated bat house, one of many installed in Ontario and Manitoba.
Bat researchers weigh and measure a little brown bat captured during a night program in Killarney Provincial Park.
They hope these heated bat houses will improve maternity roosting habitat for these animals and result in more young bats surviving the summer.
Bats really seem to like heated houses, but the experiment results have not yet been finalized and they do not yet recommend using heated bat houses outside of your experiment.
Even more bat homes
We are also embarking on our own project to make the park a better home for bats by installing more bat houses.
In 2019 you will be able to see one of our new bat houses near Killarney Observatory.
We installed the houses this fall, so these new housing options will be available in spring 2019, when the bats return to the park from their hibernation sites. We carefully select bat houses of good quality and suitable locations.
Bats are more likely to move in if the houses are in the perfect location and well built.
This is what we saw when we located the new bat houses:
- Weatherproof. The bat house should be weatherproof or installed under the eaves (or both!). How would you feel if your roof leaked?
- A good landing strip. Bats fly back to their homes to rest, and when they return to their homes, they need a fairly large landing platform, rough or grooved, to have enough space to land and be able to hold on. The interior surfaces of the house should also have a texture that helps the bats hold on.
- Location, location, location. Bats like warm shelters, their houses should be installed in a place that receives sun most of the day. They seem to especially like houses installed on buildings, but large houses installed on tall poles are also suitable. Houses installed on trees usually have too much shade.
- Narrow chambers. The narrowness helps keep bats out of the reach of predators, deters wasps from entering, and reduces airflow, keeping things warm.
Do you want to build your own bathhouse? Our friends at Bat Conservation International have great resources.
We’re not done yet!
Installing bat houses is only part of the project; We are planning to continue monitoring bat populations in the park and documenting moth diversity.
If you are interested in learning more about these fascinating creatures or helping to monitor them, attend an evening bat or moth program in Killarney next summer.
We hope you can see a bat leaving the new house for the night and get a closer look at some moths and other nocturnal insects.
Follow Killarney Provincial Park on social media (@KillarneyPP is on TwitterFacebook and Instagram during the spring, summer and fall) and stay tuned to our events page for programs on bats, moths and astronomy each summer.
To help celebrate the 125th anniversary of Ontario Parks, parks across the province are hosting 13 stewardship programs to help protect biodiversity in provincial parks.