White nose syndrome could wipe out the brown bat population in the Northeast within the next 20 years, say experts. (Photo: Getty/Matt Meadows)
The fungus behind “white nose” syndrome, the epidemic that has killed at last a million bats in the Northeast and is spreading across the United States, may be part of a long line of invasive species introduced to North America from Europe, the Associated Press reports.
The fungus grows on the nose, wings and ears of hibernating bats. The afflicted bats wake up frequently, burning up fat stores and often starving before spring.
Craig Willis is a biology professor at the University of Winnipeg who has been conducting a U.S. funded study of white nose syndrome.
“We have done an experiment and are analyzing the data. If we find evidence of the invasive species hypothesis, then it makes very good sense on focusing our efforts on European bats in hopes that we might come up with some approach for managing the disease in North America.”
If the fungus is classified as an invasive species, researchers’ next step will be to find out why European bats survive exposure to the fungus while North American bats perish. Cave temperatures or the immunity of European bats could be factors in their survival rates.
Scott Darling, a biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife has led the state’s work on white nose since the mysterious death of thousands of bats was first noticed. “For some of us in this game the invasive species battle has been focused on reptiles, amphibians or mammals as well as plants. Now we’re dealing with microbes and that’s a whole other battle.”
If European cave environments are different, researchers would have a specific way to treat the problem. Craig Willis acknowledges that adjusting the environment of bats’ hibernacula is risky and impractical, “but if we do find that the environment plays a major role in how the disease works, it's something to think about.”
Protecting bats can be crucial for natural ecosystems. As prodigious consumers of insects, bats are highly important to their local environments, and their absence can be felt all the way up the food chain.