Researchers have found a clue in the devastating die-off of bats that has struck the Northeastern United States, the Los Angeles Times reports. They have identified the fungus that gave the mysterious malady its name: White-nose Syndrome.
But bat experts are not yet sure “whether the fungus is the cause of the widespread deaths or is simply an opportunistic microorganism infecting animals that have already been weakened” by some other, still-unidentified threat, the newspaper said.
The fungus was identified at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Scientist David S. Blehert and colleagues identified the fungus as a previously unrecognized strain of the group of fungi called Geomyces, wrote reporter Thomas H. Maugh II. These fungi live in soil, water and air and are capable of growing at the low temperatures found in winter caves.
The results of the research were reported in the journal Science.
White-nose Syndrome first appeared in a hibernation cave near Albany, New York, in the winter of 2006 and has since spread to other northeastern states. In some affected caves, more than 90 percent of the hibernating bats died last winter.
The most obvious symptom is the presence of a visible halo of white fungus around the faces of afflicted animals. The affected animals become severely emaciated, often emerging from their hibernation caves in the dead of winter in a futile search for food, Maugh wrote.
He quoted biologist Thomas Kunz of Boston University as saying, “I have been studying bats for 40-plus years, and this is unparalleled in the history of what I know about bats.”
“Whether [the fungus] is the primary cause or not, we still have to find out whether it is newly introduced or if there are other factors that need to be addressed,” BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle told the Times.
The newspaper said Blehert’s team found that the fungus invaded the bats’ skin by way of hair shafts, sebaceous glands and sweat glands. Once it gets into the wing, it erodes epidermal and connective tissues, affecting heat dissipation, water control and gas exchange.
“We found that this fungus had colonized the skin of 90 percent of the bats we analyzed from all the states affected by White-nose Syndrome,” Blehert said.
The Times also noted that, although bats have a generally negative image with the public, a significant die-off could have severe economic and health consequences. “Bats represent about a quarter of all mammalian species and are voracious eaters of insects that attack crops and carry diseases,” the article said.
Blehert’s team at the National Wildlife Health Center is beginning a new research project to confirm whether or not the fungus is a cause of White-nose Syndrome. Bat Conservation International is contributing to that critical project through its WNS Emergency Response Fund. The fund has provided six other grants for WNS research work at Boston, Bucknell, Cornell, Indiana State and Missouri State universities.
You can help scientists find the cause and pursue solutions to White-nose Syndrome, possibly the most serious threat ever faced by North American bats, by contributing to BCI’s WNS Emergency Response Fund: www.batcon.org/wnsdonate.