By Maymie Higgins
Some months ago I shared with readers information about the ecological and economical value bats provide in the widely various ecosystems in which they live. They are particularly valuable in protecting crops from destruction by insects, gobbling up so many bugs that bats are estimated to save farmers up to $53 billion in pest control each year. Bats are also very important for pollination and tropical reforestation. More than 1,331 species of bats have been discovered worldwide. But my favorite fact about bats is that they are the only mammal to evolve true flight. There are other animals that glide but bats are the only mammal that truly have wings and self-propelled flight capabilities. Such marvels!
Bats are now vulnerable to a large and rapidly increasing threat known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), named for the white fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that appears on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. WNS is associated with extensive deaths in eastern North America, affecting entire colonies in some cases. WNS invades the nose, mouth and wings of bats during hibernation, when bats’ immune systems are largely shut down. Research indicates that the fungus may lead to dehydration, causing them to wake more frequently and burn precious fat reserves, which leads to starvation. WNS has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and Canada, and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America.
According to White-Nose Syndrome.org, at the end of the 2014-2015 hibernating season, bats with WNS were confirmed in the following 26 states and five Canadian provinces: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. The fungus that causes WNS has also been confirmed in Minnesota and Mississippi.
In this context, it is with cautious jubilance that I share the news that 150 bats that were part of the first field trial were released after having been successfully treated for WNS. Scientists and conservationists that are part of the large network of collaborators combating WNS gathered in the evening of Monday, May 18, 2015 at the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, MO and released these bats back to the wild.
Beginning in 2012, Dr. Christopher Cornelison and other Georgia State University peers determined that the bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, can inhibit the growth of some fungi. They found in the lab that Rhodococcus rhodochrous, without even directly touching the Pseudogymnoascus destructans, could strongly inhibit its growth. Dr. Cornelison, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Dr. Sybill Amelon and research plant pathologist Dr. Daniel Lindner continued to conduct laboratory research on the application of this bacterium, and in the winter of 2014 conducted field trials in Missouri and Kentucky caves, thanks to funding by many organizations including Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Multi-agency collaboration has been integral to the search for a treatment for White Nose Syndrome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers most of the federal funds provided by Congress to fight the disease, and many state wildlife agencies contribute staff and funds of their own in surveying for the fungus as it has traveled throughout their regions. There are also numerous private donors. This elaborate network of scientists and financial backers will continue this management-based research to control the mortality of WNS and, I believe, eventually eradicate its destruction of bats.
Here is a video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife describing WNS and the importance of bats.
Featured image courtesy of whitenosesyndrome.org