Because they are nocturnal, relatively quiet (to our ears), and in general, not very large, most people don’t realize how abundant and diverse bats are. Bats make up about 20% of all mammal species. They are ecologically critical in their roles as insect predators, pollinators and seed dispersers. Unfortunately, bats in the eastern United States and Canada are under siege by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which has killed several million bats in the eastern United States and Canada since its emergence in 2006.
Bats are infected when they return to their caves and mines to hibernate. The fungus invades their skin, creating white fungal patches on the muzzle and ears, and disrupting hibernation patterns with consequent high overwintering mortality for several species. The disease is called white-nose syndrome (WNS)
Winifred Frick has been studying bats for 17 years. She and her colleagues are trying to determine the long-term prognosis for WNS in North American bat populations. They are interested in several related questions. First, how is WNS spreading in North America? Second, are some individuals, or species, tolerant of the fungus, and thus able to sustain infections without dying? Third, is there any evidence for the evolution of resistance, in which some individuals can fight off the infection, and thus carry reduced fungal loads?
Thirty ecologists and even more research assistants throughout the United States and Canada collaborated in this study, collecting tissue from many thousands of bats, and suspected fungal samples from 79 cave walls. This team of researchers used molecular biology techniques (quantitative PCR) to estimate fungal loads. The map and data below summarize some of the findings.
The first point is that WNS was first detected in New York (black patch with arrow # 1), and quickly spread throughout the Appalachian Mountains in New England, north into Canada, and south into Virginia and West Virginia. More recently WNS has spread further west, and most disturbingly (not pictured) it was also found in the state of Washington in 2016.
On a slightly brighter note, populations of two species, Myotis lucifugus and Perimyotis subflavus, are showing evidence of resistance. For example, two Myotis lucifugus populations (1 and 2 on the map and graph) have reversed their initial sharp declines and are showing significant recovery (red dots). While all sampled individuals still have numerous Pd parasites (open circles on the graphs), the average fungal load has dropped sharply in several populations in recent years (blue dots), indicating the development of resistance.
But there is still a huge reason for concern. For example, consider the northern long-eared bat, Myotis septentrionalis. WNS spreads very rapidly and fungal loads climb to unsustainable levels among individuals of this species, usually leading to complete extirpation within three years of the first Pd infection at any site. This bat has disappeared from 69% of its caves, and is now endangered in Canada, and is being considered for protection under the United States endangered species act.
The question becomes, what can we do about white-nose syndrome? This disease is particularly pernicious, because samples from cave walls indicate that the fungus can persist outside the host for extended periods of time. So even if populations crash, there is still a reservoir of infection waiting to attack any bats that might move into a cave. Frick suggests that we need to think broadly about conservation efforts that might help the bats, particularly in areas where they are developing tolerance or resistance. She recommends identifying and protecting habitat that contains suitable hibernacula during the winter, and rich foraging sites and appropriate roosts for the rest of the year.