Bat-killing Fungus Traveled From Europe
April 11, 2012

Bat-killing Fungus Traveled From Europe

A new report released Monday says a European fungus is responsible for the deaths of millions of bats in the United States and Canada.

It has long been a suspicion that an invasive species was responsible for carrying the deadly fungus. This research confirms the carrier was not native to North America. European bats have not been as vulnerable to “white nose syndrome,” the name of the fungal disease responsible for the deaths of American and Canadian bats alike. According to the Associated Press (AP), more than 5.7 million bats have died in North America since the disease was first discovered in 2006. Some scientists suggest a human tourist may be responsible for carrying the disease across the pond.

Named for the white mask it leaves on a bats muzzle, white nose syndrome strikes bats while they are hibernating.

Researchers at the University of Winnipeg have now determined how it kills these bats.

“The fungus somehow causes the bats to warm up from hibernation too often,” said Craig Willis, a biologist at the University of Winnipeg who oversaw the study by US and Canadian scientists. Though humans cannot catch the disease, they can carry the fungal spores.

“A reasonable hypothesis is that a tourist tracked it into a cave in New York State on their boots or on their clothing,” Willis said. “It is possible a person who had the inclination to visit a cave in Europe picked up something on their shoes and then accidentally introduced it into New York.”

Their study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Until now, bats in Canada as well as bats in the northeastern and southern United Sates have been affected. Last week, evidence was found of the illness moving west of the Mississippi River, infecting bats in Missouri.

According to the BBC, some biologists are even calling this epidemic the worst wildlife health crisis in living memory.

Speaking to BBC news, Ann Froschauer of the US white-nose syndrome (WNS) co-ordination team at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said, “We recognize that bats are moving the disease pretty efficiently themselves.”

“What we are doing in terms of a containment strategy is to basically buy ourselves some time and prevent a big long-distance jump, such as an accidental introduction of the fungus in an area much further than the bats could naturally move it.”

“We don´t want someone to hop on a plane in New York and then get off in Seattle and create a new epicenter, so our containment strategy focuses on decontamination protocol and restricting access to sites.”

The scientists working with the bats say it is important to protect them, as they play a large ecological role in their environments. Bats eat insects that are often dangerous to agriculture and crops. As such, diminishing bat populations could mean an increased insect population, costing the farming industry up to $3.7 billion a year, according to published research.

Says Willis, "There is still not much we can do beyond making absolutely sure we don't make things worse by accidentally spreading the fungus.”


Image Caption: A little brown bat with white nose syndrome. Credit: Marvin Moriarty/USFWS