Humidity, huddling & the hibernation energetics of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus)
Muise, Kristina A.
Muise, Kristina A. Humidity, huddling & the hibernation energetics of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus); A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Science degree, Department of Biology, Master of Science in Bioscience, Technology, and Public Policy Program, The University of Winnipeg. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: University of Winnipeg, 2021. DOI: 10.36939/ir.202108241557.
During winter, many mammals hibernate and lower their body temperature and metabolic rate (MR) in prolonged periods of torpor. Hibernators will use energetically expensive arousals (i.e., restore body temperature and MR) presumably to re-establish water balance. Some hibernating mammals however will huddle in groups, possibly to decrease energetic costs and total evaporative water loss (EWL), although the benefit is not fully understood. Research on the relationship between behaviour, physiology, water loss, and energy expenditure of bats during hibernation is especially important because of a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS). To date, 12 North American bat species are affected by WNS, however big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) appear resistant, although the underlying mechanism is poorly understood. The overall objective of my thesis was to understand the influence of humidity and huddling on the behavioural and physiological responses of hibernating big brown bats. To test my hypotheses, I used a captive colony of hibernating big brown bats (n = 20). Specifically, for Chapter 2, I first tested the hypothesis that big brown bats adjust huddling and drinking behaviour depending on humidity, to maintain a consistent pattern of periodic arousals, and therefore energy balance during hibernation. I found that bats hibernating in a dry environment did not differ in arousal/torpor bout frequency, or torpor bout duration throughout hibernation but drank at twice the rate as bats in a humid environment. Bats in the dry treatment also had shorter arousals, and huddled in a denser huddle, potentially to reduce rates of total EWL. During late hibernation, for Chapter 3, I used open-flow respirometry to test two additional hypotheses, first that phenotypic flexibility in total EWL helps explain the tolerance of hibernating big brown bats for a wide range of humidity relative to other bat species. I found that dry-acclimated bats had lower rates of total EWL, compared to bats acclimated to humid conditions. I then tested the second hypothesis that big brown bats can use huddling to mitigate the challenge of dry conditions. I found that, for humid-acclimated bats, rates of total EWL were reduced with huddling bats but there was no effect of huddling on EWL for bats acclimated to dry conditions. These results suggest that the ability of big brown bats to reduce rates of total EWL through acclimation may reduce the need to huddle with conspecifics to avoid water loss and thus dehydration. Overall, my thesis suggests that big brown bats use both behavioural and physiological mechanisms to reduce water loss which could allow them to exploit habitats for hibernation that are unavailable to other bat species and could also help explain their apparent resistance to WNS.