Bad news, it’s said, often comes in threes.
For North America’s imperiled bats, that definitely proved true this past month.
On May 29, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism announced that the fungus that has killed millions of bats over the past 12 years has been found on a new species, the cave myotis bat (Myotis velifer). Biologists collected dead and dying bats in three Kansas counties and confirmed that they were suffering from white-nose syndrome, the disease caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd).
The next day, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the fungus had been found in South Dakota for the first time. There, the fungus was detected on a western small-footed bat (M. ciliolabrum) — another species newly affected by Pd — and four big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) at Badlands National Park. None of the bats in South Dakota had yet contracted white-nose syndrome.
Finally, on June 1, the Service announced that the fungus had reached another new state, this time Wyoming. Again, this was an early detection and the fungus does not yet appear to have sickened any bats in the state. This makes 32 states and seven Canadian provinces where white-nose syndrome has affected bats, plus an additional four states in which the fungus has been detected.
The string of multiple bad announcements over a three-day period appeared to weigh heavily on the 150 bat researchers and other experts who gathered in Tacoma, Wash., last week for the White-Nose Syndrome Annual Meeting.
“It’s tough,” says Ann Froschauer, Pacific region white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I think we all knew that this was coming. You always hope there’ll be something that’s different, something that slows it down or changes the way that it’s moving. But you get these new detections and it’s like, ‘Oh man, there goes another one.’”
Catherine Hibbard, the Service’s white-nose syndrome national communications coordinator, echoed that sentiment, saying the three recent announcements loomed over the meeting. “It underlies the importance of having this meeting in the west because white-nose syndrome and the fungus are spreading in new directions,” she says. “There are still a lot of states that have not detected the fungus, and we expect more news to come, unfortunately.”
At the same time, the meeting offered multiple signs of hope. Dozens of presenters shared the latest news and research about conservation efforts, white-nose syndrome treatment and mitigation techniques, bat physiology and behavior, and other topics.
One promising area of research discussed at the meeting was the discovery, published earlier this year, that the fungus is incredibly sensitive to ultraviolet light. In fact, exposure to UV actually kills the fungus.
“It’s essentially like a vampire fungus,” says Daniel Lindner, a plant pathologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and one of the authors of the study that revealed the UV sensitivity. “This fungus has evolved in the dark for so long that it truly is a creature of the dark. It’s gone so far down that evolutionary road that it’s lost the ability to repair DNA damage from light.”
He laughs at the irony of a vampire attacking bats. “The tables have turned,” he says.
Lindner and a team of researchers are now expanding on their UV discovery to see if they can kill the fungus without damaging its hosts. One idea they’re working on, which Lindner presented at the meeting, is trying to coax infected bats to fly through a ring emitting pulses of UV light, potentially destroying the fungus in the process. A lot of questions remain about that, he says. “Are the bats going to fly through these rings, or is their behavior going to change and they’ll avoid them?”
Despite these and other open questions about the fungus, many of the experts I spoke with at the meeting said they felt strengthened by the act of coming together to discuss the white-nose syndrome problem.
“You know, I think the thing that is most promising when we get together is just having the ability to tap into so much expertise from across the country,” says Froschauer. “Those of us here in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re just starting to deal with this disease, have this brain trust of scientists and land managers from all over the U.S. and Canada — researchers that are doing this critical research — right at our fingertips. It’s a really great opportunity to quickly learn the latest and greatest so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I think it helps people feel like there’s a little more hope than if they were just approaching it blindly.”
Hibbard says this is an important time for experts to gather and compare progress in their various fields. “It’s a big unknown about how a lot of these western species are going to respond to white-nose syndrome,” she says. “By gathering here, everyone is sharing notes about how they’re going to prepare when it comes to their state. It’s great for everybody to be talking to each other about these things.”
After the first day of the conference, many of the researchers gathered at a nearby conservation area to watch Washington state’s largest known bat colony emerge from its daytime slumber. As the twilight sky darkened, the thousands of uninfected bats that flew over us served as a breathtaking reminder of the importance of the efforts to preserve these disappearing species.
“We’re all concerned here about the survival of bats,” says Hibbard. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
The Pd fungus and white-nose syndrome do not appear to affect humans or any species other than bats, but people can unwittingly spread it — and they can help bat populations as well. The official white-nose syndrome website offers a full page of tips on how people can help local conservation efforts, including how to decontaminate clothing and other equipment they use in caves where the fungus may be present.