The Geomyces destructans fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome was found on a few Oklahoma bats in 2010, but no symptoms were seen. The lethal wildlife disease itself turned up in eastern Missouri last year. But although WNS has clearly jumped the Mississippi River, Western bats have so far been almost entirely spared the devastation that still batters bat populations across eastern North America.
|Little brown myotis showsing symptoms of White-nose Syndrome in Pennsylvania. © Michael Schirmacher, BCI
Bat scientists and conservationists across the Western states are holding their breath, preparing for the worst, but hoping something – species differences, geography, climate or some other factor – may prevent the disastrous spread of WNS through the region. And some scientists, the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader reports, are trying to determine what, if anything, might allow Western bats to escape the wrath of WNS.
“We don’t know why it didn’t continue at a rapid pace going west,” Missouri State University biologist Tom Tomasi told the newspaper. “It seems to have slowed down quite a bit, but if it gets a foothold on this side of the Mississippi, it could spread all the way to the Pacific, and some species are not likely to be able to fight it off.”
Tomasi, biologist Lynn Robbins and several students are studying bats that spend winter months inside the Smallin Civil War Cave in southwestern Missouri. They results, reporter Donna Baxter writes, may solve the puzzle of why some bat populations seem less susceptible to White-nose Syndrome.
“No bats have White-nose in this part of the state,” Tomasi said. If we can find some bacteria on the bats here that are more resistant to the disease and not on the bats that are susceptible, then that might give clues to what’s going on. We take a swab sample, which means basically rubbing a Q-tip on the bat’s wing and face to pick up some bacteria so we can take it back and analyze it.”
In the cave, the newspaper reports, Tomasi gently lifted individual bats from the wall and held them while pre-med student Chris Bogart swabbed their fur to get samples that are sealed in tiny containers. Then they placed bands on the bats, recorded the band numbers and placed the bats back on the cave wall.
“I want to see if there’s any bacteria or fungi or [other organism] on their skin that can confer some kind of differential resistance to the White-nose fungus,” Bogart told the News-Leader. “There are some species of bats that are already known to be somewhat resistant. Those are the ones that I’m kind of targeting.”
“The category of medicine I want to go into is infectious diseases,” he said. “White-nose Syndrome is an infectious-disease problem with bats. Hopefully, my research can help bats not only in Missouri but across the country.”
Tomasi said the research should help scientists understand the bat-fungus interaction that results in this grim disease. “The more we know about it, the sooner we’ll be able to find something to help the bats.”
If a bacterium or other substance is found to increase resistance to WNS, Tomasi told the newspaper, the next step would be to find out how it could be transferred from one bat species to another without damaging the bats or the complex cave ecosystems in which they live.