White-Nose Syndrome is Driving Conservation Batty

by |October 27, 2011

Scientists report in a recently published article in Nature that the fungus Geomyces destructans found on bats afflicted with White Nose Syndrome is the primary cause of the disease.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.

The disease has decimated many populations of bats in the United States and parts of Canada leaving them vulnerable to a rapid extinction. While indirect evidence suggested a link between the colonization of skin by the fungus and the disease, speculation that an unidentified factor was the true culprit was common. The debate was fueled by the fact that the fungus is very common among bat populations in Europe not affected by White Nose Syndrome. The direct evidence of causality confirms G. destructans as the primary cause of the disease and will help guide management actions to preserve affected bat populations.

By exposing cultures of G. destructans to healthy little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus), researchers noted the gradual decline in health among the critters and recorded symptoms clearly associated with White Nose Syndrome.

Scientists have also long debated the exact details as to how the agent spreads. The study confirmed speculation that White Nose Syndrome can be transmitted directly from infected bats to healthy ones through contact. Tourists and other individuals who visit caves with affected bats may also be responsible for spreading the fungus.

However, amidst all the muck of doom and gloom, researchers report in the July issue of the Journal of Wildlife Diseases that affected bats can be nursed back to health with constant medical attention, food, warmth, and water. The researchers captured the white-nosed bats and provided them with lab-administered meal worms and treated infected wing tissue with a dilute vinegar solution.

Twenty-six of the animals survived seventy days; all had recovered and their wings were fungus-free. Though the program was moderately successful in increasing the survivorship of afflicted bats, researchers warn that captive rehabilitation is difficult to accomplish. Alison Robbins of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass. told Science News that she had taken in 120 infected little-brown bats last year for a treatment trial, but within three months, each had died.

Hope for a vaccine to defeat the disease is low, as researchers believe this magic bullet will not be effective when the fungus is most infectious, while the bats are hibernating in cold temperatures.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the availability of new funding for projects related directly to the investigation and management of white-nose syndrome. The announcement will be open for 45 days, with proposals due 4 December 2011. With no signs of the infection slowing and more than one million bats succumbing to white nose syndrome in the past five years, the conservation community should be on high alert and investing resources in finding a sustainable conservation strategy.

The unprecedented decline in bat populations has devastating effects on ecosystem services that we depend on. For example, the Forest Service estimates that 2.4 million pounds of bugs will go uneaten and damage existing crops, leaving farmers with a difficult financial burden to overcome.

CERC offers a course that discusses the notion that human life and well-being are dependent on goods and services provided by nature. However, this natural capital is chronically undervalued and often poorly understood. Biodiversity – the variety of life on earth – supports many ecosystem functions and the loss of diversity can have both obvious and subtle consequences. This course explores the scientific issues related to the origin, distribution, and functions of biodiversity and the consequences of biodiversity loss.

This course is part of CERC’s Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. It meets Wed. Nov. 16, 30, Dec. 7, 14, and 21 from 6-8PM. The first session is free and open to the public. To attend the full 10-hour course registration is required. Courses may be taken on an individual basis or you may pursue the full 12-course Certificate. Interested in learning more? Visit our website or contact CERC for more information: cerc@columbia.edu or 212-854-0149.

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