Up in the air

By Krista Baliko Posted: December 11, 2018 5:00 a.m.

Erin Swerdfeger holding an Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis) during her 2017 field season near Simpson, SK.
Erin Swerdfeger holding an Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis) during her 2017 field season near Simpson, SK. Photo by Shayna Hamilton

Large wind turbines are becoming a common site on the vast Prairie landscape. And why not? There’s plenty of available wind to keep these sustainable energy sources whirling. But the spinning blades are also killing an important part of our ecosystem. A University of Regina student is trying to alter that current. 

“Large numbers of bat fatalities have been recorded at wind energy facilities around the world, especially of migratory tree-roosting bats during autumn migration,” explains Erin Swerdfeger, a biology master’s student. “They are killed either by the blades themselves, or from damage to their bodies caused by the low pressure created by the oscillating blades.” 

Unlike with birds, scientists don’t yet know the movement patterns for migratory bats in southern Saskatchewan. That's what Swerdfeger’s research is trying to determine. 

“Of the bats killed by wind energy facilities, 80 per cent are migratory," explains Swerdfeger, who is supervised by bat expert and biology professor Mark Brigham and his post-doctoral student Erin Baerwald. “And a recent study estimated that hoary bat populations, which is one of the species I’m studying, could decline by up to 90 per cent in the next 50 years if this trend continues.” 

But if Swerdfeger can figure out where the bats fly, then she can also make recommendations about placing wind energy facilities elsewhere—meaning significantly fewer bats will be killed. 

“Bats take a long time to reproduce, so their populations don’t recover quickly,” says Swerdfeger. “And ensuring that bats thrive benefits the entire ecosystem.” One significant example of their role comes from their food source. 

“Bats are the primary consumers of nocturnal insects, including crop pests. Right now, because of bats, the agricultural industry saves billions of dollars in pesticide use every year.” 

Bats have made a big impression on Swerdfeger, who has studied them for more than a decade. Now she wants to help them. 

“Bats are amazing creatures. I fell in love with them during my undergraduate studies and they completely won me over. They are cute, they have a lot of personality, and there is still so much we don't understand about them.” 

Part of that mystery around bats is their migratory pathways. 

“Green energy is positive, and if we can produce it in a way that minimizes how we negatively affect the environment, that’s even better.” 


To learn more about how University of Regina research is impacting the world around us, please visit Discourse, the University’s research magazine.