Bat boxes located at the Drake Landing off-leash dog park in Okotoks have contributed to a University of Calgary ecology student's research.

Erin Miller says the little brown bat and the big brown bat are the two types of bat species most commonly found in our area and her research has led her to develop an appreciation for all bats. She says they play a significant positive role in any ecosystem that they're found in.

"I love how unique they are," she says. "They're the only guys who can do what they do, flying little mammals. I guess I kind of naturally root for the underdog and so knowing that they have this negative reputation a lot of the time makes me want to defend them and help them. And they eat insects, so they're already my best friend, being a natural insect repellent."

Miller has been studying how best to provide artificial roost sites for bats, since one of the threats they're facing is habitat loss due to deforestation. She explains that bats normally roost in trees that are on the verge of dying, because they can only enter a tree through naturally occurring cracks. Another threat is white nose syndrome, a fungus that has already wiped out large populations of bats in the east. Miller says it has been especially devastating for hibernating populations of little brown bats and researchers are keeping a close watch on the progress of the fungus as it moves closer to Alberta. She feels that providing optimum artificial roost sites with access to the flying insect diets that bats require to fatten up during the summer months could help improve their survival rates over the winter, if the fungus does hit here.

She says Okotoks volunteers monitored the boxes here in town last spring, but no bats were seen exiting them and, as of last week, the same holds true so far this year. Miller says that by regularly checking the boxes for signs of bat residency, the local volunteers have contributed in a couple of different ways.

"Having the effort of the citizens involved, it not only increased my study area, it also, I think, is an amazing way to increase awareness of bats," Miller says.  "Because you have people going to these bat boxes and getting excited about the idea of seeing a bat."

Miller says the fact that there's been no evidence of bats seen at the Okotoks off-leash park boxes yet got her thinking about what could be done differently to encourage them to take up residence here.

For example, she says her research has shown that bat boxes painted entirely black without a source of shade can heat up past the tolerance level for bats, and that led her to wonder if painting the bottom half of the bat boxes white could help attract bats by providing a temperature range that's cooler at the bottom and warmer at the top. She says placement of the boxes is also pivotal to attracting bats.

"When it comes to Okotoks, from my results, bats don't seem to like bat boxes on poles," Miller says. "That's pretty much one of my most significant results, was that bats preferred to roost on boxes attached to buildings over boxes attached to poles. So, I would be concerned with the Okotoks boxes there."

Miller says bats still face certain negative stereotypes. For example, she points out that many people link bats to fears of rabies, but she adds that research has shown bats don't have  higher incident rates of rabies compared to any other mammals. There's also a perception that bats swoop down and get tangled in people's hair, but Miller says it's not because they're attacking, but because the bat is chasing flying insects that sometimes swarm above people's heads.

There's still hope that bats will take up residence in the Okotoks bat boxes, which have been at the park since 2015, but it may take a bit more time, she says. Once they do, it's expected they'll help pitch in with the battle against mosquitoes at the off-leash park, as they're well known for having large appetites for flying insects and each one of them can eat hundreds of insects per night.

"Bats are very conservative," Miller explains. "And even if they see that there is a new roost, which on its own takes a long time for a bat to even notice, they usually won't roost in something new right away. They want to be able to trust it and to be able to have seen it for a few years before they'll roost in it."

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