New research on white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats will investigate environmental conditions in caves and mines used by hibernating bats. The research will focus on the fungus Geomyces destructans, which causes the fatal disease.
WNS is a devastating disease of hibernating bats that has killed an estimated 5.5 million bats across the northeastern U.S. since it was first discovered in New York in 2006. WNS continues to spread across North America and has caused drastic declines in hibernating bat populations.
This research will be conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) and EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on local conservation and global health issues. It is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Bats are an important part of the North American ecosystem, providing for example billions of dollars in pest control to our agricultural industry every year," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "The USGS and its partners are racing against the clock to understand and find clues that will help us combat this new disease and save this valuable resource."
Scientists will investigate environmental conditions within bat hibernacula (caves and mines used by hibernating bats) to identify potential factors that contribute to disease development and severity. Scientists will assess how environmental factors affect the growth and persistence of the deadly fungus in the environment and on bats within hibernation sites. Research will target six hibernacula in the East and Midwest U.S. Each site will be monitored for microclimate conditions and quantity of the deadly fungus on bats, soil, and rock surfaces throughout the year.
Geomyces destructans can persist within the environment of bat hibernacula, potentially causing bats to become infected during hibernation. This suggests that environmental factors play an important role in the spread and severity of WNS.
"Our knowledge of climatic variation and distribution of the fungus within bat hibernacula is currently very limited" said Dr. Michelle Verant, a University of Wisconsin veterinary epidemiologist working at the NWHC and collaborating on the study. "A better understanding of how these factors are related to the manifestation of WNS in affected sites will be vital for managing this disease."
The team of scientists will also develop and test predictive models to forecast the progression of WNS across the U.S. and Canada. To date, WNS had been found in 19 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.
The USFWS recently announced seven grant awards totaling $1.4 million for research and management of WNS in bats, thus providing critical support for investigating WNS. In addition to the environmental conditions study, the USGS was also awarded a grant to investigate the potential for bats to transmit Geomyces destructans during the summer when they use hibernacula contaminated with the fungus.
The USGS NWHC continues to be on the forefront of research into WNS. Studies conducted at the NWHC led to the discovery, characterization, and naming of the causative agent, the fungus Geomyces destructans, and to the development of standardized diagnostic criteria for characterizing the disease. Additionally, the Center has pioneered techniques for studying impacts of the fungus to hibernating bats.
The USGS NWHC, based in Madison, Wisc., provides leadership to safeguard wildlife and ecosystem health through dynamic partnerships and exceptional science. The NWHC investigates the causes of wildlife die-offs and disease across the nation through research and diagnostic evaluation. The Center also provides technical assistance, training, information management and communication on wildlife health issues to natural resource managers, decision-makers, other scientists, and the public.
For more information about NWHC, visit the National Wildlife Health Center website.
About EcoHealth Alliance
Building on over 40 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is a global, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and safeguarding human health from the emergence of disease. The organization develops ways to combat the effects of damaged ecosystems on human and wildlife health. Using environmental and health data covering the past 60 years, EcoHealth Alliance scientists created the first-ever, global disease hotspots map that identified at-risk regions, to help predict and prevent the next pandemic crisis. That work is the foundation of EcoHealth Alliance’s rigorous, science-based approach, focused at the intersection of the environment, health, and capacity building. Working in the U.S. and more than 20 countries worldwide, EcoHealth Alliance’s strength is founded on innovations in research, training, global partnerships, and policy initiatives. For more information, visit the EcoHealth Alliance website.