Dr. Craig Willis

Researcher Profiles

Dr. Craig Willis

Dr. Craig Willis, Associate Professor & Chancellor’s Research Chair

Can you share a brief description of your current research.

For most people the word wildlife makes them think caribou, moose or polar bears but most wildlife species are tiny and tough to find. My students and I work on these kinds of small-small bodied mammals, especially the fantastically interesting mammals that fly: the bats.

Research in my lab falls into two categories: fundamental or curiosity science and applied conservation science. On the curiosity side we’re interested in how animals make decisions that help them balance energy intake and energy expenditure, especially in species that hibernate. Our Manitoba bats are superstars of hibernation during winter, surviving eight months with no food on about three grams of stored fat. We’re curious how these tiny, long-lived mammals are able to do this.

On the applied, conservation side, our work on hibernation and energy balance is important for understanding wildlife responses to climate change but we’re also especially focused on two immediate crises for the conservation of North American bats. Industrial wind turbines kill an estimated 500,000 migratory bats per year in North America while an emerging fungal disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS) is spreading fast and has killed millions of hibernating bats in eastern North America since 2007 and is threatening our most common bat species with extinction. We’re working hard in a race to understand and hopefully manage these threats to North American bats.  

In what ways could this research affect the average person?

High quality curiosity science is critically important for society because it’s impossible to predict where important breakthroughs will come from. Understanding nature simply for the sake of understanding it is worthwhile. It also makes an essential contribution that’s important for everyone in society, because it may lead to important applied but unanticipated breakthroughs down the road.

More immediately, though, for those that just care about money, protecting bats is good for business. Bats throughout the world provide essential “ecosystem services” (defined as stuff nature does for society that saves us or makes us money). In the temperate world bats consume literally tons of insects. Sadly for us in Manitoba they don’t tend to eat that many mosquitoes (sorry!) but they do their fair share. The bats that have been killed by WNS in eastern North America so far would normally have consumed 7,000 tons of night-flying insects each summer. We don’t have a great handle yet on how much money insect-eating bats actually save society in terms of crop damage and reduced pesticide use but one recent estimate put this value at about $20 billion per year for the continental U.S. The consequences of losing this ecosystem service provided by bats are still not fully understood but it does not look positive.

For you personally, why do you want to do this kind of research?

Since I was a kid I’ve always been interested in nature and animals but it was an undergraduate field course studying bats and birds with three inspiring professors (one of whom ended up being my PhD supervisor) that hooked me on being a field biologist. While I don’t get to do this myself often enough anymore (my students get to have most of the fun), having a job that lets me play outside studying animals, at least sometimes, is extremely appealing.

The recent conservation threats to bats have definitely been the strongest recent motivation for me. Most of us rarely encounter bats so it’s easy to under-appreciate or even fear them but they are really fantastically interesting and amazing animals. They can live more than 30 years in the wild, have complex and fascinating social lives and amazing abilities to perceive the world through echolocation. I find the thought of losing these animals from our night sky incredibly sad and this is a strong motivator to keep working on these important but challenging conservation problems.   

What is the most satisfying part of this research?

No question, working with bright, motivated students like Alana, especially in the field but also in the lab, and seeing them succeed in their projects. This is just about the most rewarding thing ever.   

What kind of student involvement do you have in this research?

In my group, the students are the people who actually do the vast majority of the exciting work and we have a great team in the UW Bat Lab. At the moment there are 13 of us, one NSERC post-doctoral fellow, seven graduate students, four undergrads and our Lab Manager to help us stay a bit organized. The UWinnipeg obviously has a long history of involving undergrads in high-end research but in my experience it’s been really positive for undergrad to also have the chance to work alongside and learn from M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, and post-docs. Having students at all levels is really important for providing world-class science training to undergrads and for providing mentoring opportunities to more experienced graduate students and post-docs.

In addition to our UWinnipeg home-team, we are also really happy to be hosting a couple of visiting PhD students this year supervised by my collaborators at Boston University and the University of California Santa Cruz. They’re visiting to take advantage of the new Campus Wildlife Laboratory for Disease and Ecology (C-WiLDE) our one-of-a-kind facility in the Richardson College designed specifically to house captive bats for studies of behaviour and energetics, and to help us understand diseases like WNS. For these projects, we’ll be working on ways to better rehabilitate bats suffering from WNS, learning about what happens during recovery for the few bats that do survive and trying a range of treatment methods that we might, one day, be able to scale up to the field in order to protect bats from this horrible disease.

What would you say to students who may be interested in this field of study?

If you care about making a lot of money do something else. But if you love nature, are passionate about animal biology, and are keen to work hard on exciting challenges with smart people, this kind of work is for you.