Partnership with industry produces an award-winning approach to conservation
A fat bat, it turns out, is a healthy bat. If pudgy enough, its chances of survival may increase – particularly in light of an emerging fatal disease.
That fattening up was the motivation for NAIT students who’d entered the international Quarry Life Award. Held annually by HeidelbergCement, the contest asks researchers, students and citizens to share ideas to increase biodiversity at the company’s extraction sites around the world.
One of those ideas was a series of little wooden boxes at the Lehigh Hanson Cadomin Quarry, located more than 300 kilometres west of Edmonton at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Inconspicuous as bird feeders, these houses for bats, designed and built at NAIT, could have a profound effect on the winged mammals and people alike. A single little brown bat, now listed as endangered in Canada, can eat some 600 mosquitoes every hour it spends swooping through night skies. After a big night out, bat houses are cozy and convenient crash pads.
That’s especially important in the fall, when a warm manmade house (compared to a natural roost such as a cave) can help reduce fat loss during daytime naps. “We’re trying to create a stopgap measure to give [bats] a little extra time,” says Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources chair Dave Critchley (BST – Renewable Resources ’98, Forestry ’99), who initiated and coordinated the project.
That extra time could be the key to salvation for Alberta’s bats. Elsewhere in North America, a fungus is causing white nose syndrome, which is all but eliminating certain populations.
By irritating and waking bats from winter hibernation, the syndrome leads to a dangerous depletion of body fat when combined with the relative absence of insects to eat. That fungus is closing in on the province.
"We might be able to help with the survival of these species.”
“If our boxes are successful, we might be able to help with the survival of these species,” says Véronique Caron (Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18), one of the leaders of the NAIT project.
In some ways, they’ve already succeeded. This fall, Caron and the other students – drawn from programs across NAIT – made history as international Quarry Life Award winners. It’s a first for a Canadian post-secondary. It's also among the first steps that HeidlebergCement, which operates 101 quarries in 25 countries, is taking to support bats worldwide.
The fine line between housing bats and cooking them
The project’s beginning hardly pointed to this outcome. Looking back at September 2017, Critchley had realistic expectations. That is, they were low.
“Nobody has time to do these extra projects,” he says, aware of the demands placed on diploma students on a two-year timeline. The Quarry Life Award represented countless volunteer efforts for no extra credit.
Nevertheless, the challenge piqued interest among students, so Critchley proposed an idea.
For years, he and peers with whom he collaborates outside of NAIT on bat conservation had wondered about the possibility of a better bat house than the common plywood shelter, which offers little protection when temperatures drop, triggering bats to commit to months-long naps in caves known as hibernacula. Renovations were required, and pursuing the Quarry Life Award seemed like a way to get them done. Keen students rallied, including Caron, who shared leadership duties with Jenna Hlewka (BST – Renewable Resources ’18).
“I was always interested in bats,” says Caron, who found them “cute” even when she was a child. “So as soon as I got the chance to do a bat project, I jumped right at it.”
"As soon as I got the chance to do a bat project, I jumped right at it.”
To that end, the students evaluated a series of bat houses and located them at the Lehigh Hanson Cadomin Quarry. Owned by HeidlebergCement, it's situated near the Cadomin caves, one of Alberta’s largest known hibernacula. The collection included conventional boxes and others that were variously enhanced to keep interior temperatures above freezing and below 40 C. One early prototype, for example, involved a solar vacuum tube, which concentrates heat from sunlight.
“The temperatures within the box were over 100 C,” says Caron. “The team scrapped that one.”
A more successful version used phase-change material donated by U.S.-based InsolCorp. The building material enhances conventional insulation, storing energy in a fluid phase then releasing it as temperatures drop and the material re-solidifies. Tests in an environmental chamber at NAIT to mimic the day- and night-time temperatures observed in a local bat colony showed comfortable variation within bat houses built with phase-change material.
Most importantly, it was shown to prevent cooking of the mammals, as temperatures inside the high-tech houses tended to stay below 29.2 C, but above those at which the syndrome-causing fungus flourishes. The houses will continue to be monitored at the quarry for temperature and bat visits.
A better future for microfauna
Brent Korobanik jokingly refers to himself as “the tree hugger here.” Officially, he’s the environmental manager for Edmonton’s Lehigh Hanson cement plant and the Cadomin quarry. For him, the bat project increased awareness of what, in his circles, is known as ‘enigmatic microfauna.’ Generally, conservation efforts in the area tend to focus on ‘charismatic megafauna,’ such as grizzly bears that frequent the quarry site.
But the development of the bat houses, which quarry staff helped to install (and for which they built a stand that the students designed from old drilling stems and an empty cable spool), are just one part of the learnings he hopes to apply beyond Cadomin. The students’ work also alerted the company to the fact that their activities provided habitat in the form of cracks and crevices in piles of rock debris.
Before that, they'd not thought about their waste as “useable habitat.”
“There’s an opportunity for us to make sure we’re not going to be impeding bats from using that area,” says Korobanik. That means they’ll be careful not to disturb it when bats might be tucked inside, tending pups. “We’ll be considering who’s using that habitat.”
“We’ll be considering who’s using that habitat.”
What’s more, he feels that the NAIT project contributes to the company’s bottom line. “Things like this are helping us better plan for our future, and [to] better manage our operations to ensure that we’re going to be here for a long time – as well as everything that’s in that quarry.”
Since their success with the Quarry Life Award, Caron and Hlewka also feel better positioned to plan for the future. Winning brought earned the team cash prizes: 2,500 euros (about $3,790 Canadian) for placing second in North America and 10,000 euros (about $15,170) for topping the international biodiversity management category.
As all the money is covering the project’s research expenses, the real win for participants is experience. Both Caron and Hlewka, who are now parlaying their Biological Sciences Technology diplomas into conservation science degrees, are eager to work with bats in careers to come. In fact, they’re continuing to volunteer with data collection from the quarry site.
But they also feel that the work they did at NAIT – including research, proposal writing, project management and presenting to Quarry Life judges during a trip to meet them in Dallas, Texas – could point them toward almost any subject in conservation biology.
“Our role in this project has allowed us to grow as scientists and researchers,” says Hlewka. “I feel that it’s just up from here.”
“The ultimate goal is to help endangered species that are affected by white nose syndrome,” says Caron. The professional benefits that have come with that have been welcome bonus.
“When we first started working with Dave, he kept reminding us, ‘You know, we might not go anywhere with this. But it’s good experience.’ We all went into it not expecting anything from it. But it turns out we made quite an impact.”
The Quarry Life Award team
Between September 2017 and January 2019, students and staff from across NAIT collaborated on a project they called Ruling the Roost, its goal being to build a better bat house in support of conservation efforts at the Lehigh Hanson Cadomin Quarry.
Here are the active group participants, who contributed to the design, construction, research, fieldwork and communications that led to two Quarry Life Awards: second of more than 300 teams in North America and first overall in the international biodiversity management category:
Hafida Aissiou – Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management ’18, Chemical Technology ’07
Ronnie Caron – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Dave Critchley – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’98, Forestry ’99
Csilla Harsasi – Alternate Energy Technology ’18
Krystal Hartog – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Jenna Hlewka – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Cyril Kaderabek – Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management ’18
Quintin Laschuk – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Eric Lastiwka – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’11
Daniel Monaco – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Rose Murawsky – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Taylor Thomeus – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Bianca Unrau – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18
Cassandra Walker – Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18