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Researchers make progress finding cause of white-nose syndrome in bats

November 19th, 2011 10:26 pm by Kevin Castle

Spelunkers have not darkened the path of public Tennessee caves in two years now — the fallout of the white-nose syndrome fungus wiping out millions of bats in 19 states.

Wildlife officials are encouraged by a breakthrough made through University of Tennessee research that has pinpointed the cause of white-nose syndrome (WNS), but the study’s co-author says a solution for erasing the disease is still far off.

UT biology associate Justin Boyles told the Times-News that the discovery was made using healthy bats exposed to the fungus in the safe confines of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center on the University of Wisconsin campus.

The re-creation of the fungus, Geomyces destructans, in the lab lets scientists and federal wildlife agencies put effort and money into deleting the fungus out of the bat’s environment or at least slow its spread.

“However, in my opinion, getting rid of it is unlikely to see a solution within the next two to three years,” said Boyles. “This is going to take something that someone has never thought of before because fungal spores are incredibly resilient and incredibly hard to get rid of. So it will take something unusual to solve it. We just now kn ow what we are aiming for.”

WNS, named for the white halo-like visuals around the bat’s snout once the sickness takes hold, forced the closure of caves throughout Tennessee and Virginia, including popular cave spots inside the Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, due to cave visitors spreading the disease by stepping in bat droppings or cave soil sponged with the fungus then exploring another cave.

The peculiar situation that has arose in the research is the exact same fungus exists around bats in Europe, but scientists aren’t seeing the massive kill-off there that the United States has experienced.

“We think if we can figure out what is going on in Europe, we can figure out how to apply it here,” Boyles said. “It has been a superficial look at the genetics so far. There is a researcher in Arizona right now that is looking at any differences in the genome of the two fungi to see if there is any difference we can exploit.

“We need to see if the bat is different and not the fungus. The bat species that hibernate in Europe are bigger, and they hibernate in smaller groups. They are large hibernation groups in the U.S. There could also be a difference in the fungus’s growth rate.”

Bats are normally shunned by their human neighbors due to their looks and overall creepiness, but Boyles points out another UT study that puts a dollar amount on a bat’s worth in terms of economic agricultural spin-off.

“There are two different reasons that we should care what happens to these bats,” he said.

“They are incredibly important to our ecosystem because they are a large predator of nighttime flying insects. There is also an economic side to this. Bats, each summer, are worth at least $3 billion to the agriculture industry.

“That could have a trickle-down effect to the consumer on what we would pay for fruits and vegetables, and we are a couple of years away from that, but it is very likely.”

For more information visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Web site dedicated to the disease:

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