10 years ago, a fungus was introduced in the United States that quickly decimated populations of bats in American and Canada.
The culprit? Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which causes white-nose syndrome in bats.
But now, for the first time, scientists have successfully treated bats infected with white-nose syndrome.
On May 19, 2015, scientists and conservationists gathered outside the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, Missouri, to release back into the wild some of the first bats successfully treated for deadly white-nose syndrome.
The 75 bats released in May were part of the first field trials of a novel way to protect bats from this malady.
What White-Nose Syndrome Does to Bats
Pd invades the nose, mouth and wings of bats during hibernation, when bats’ immune systems are largely shut down. Research indicates that the fungus may lead to dehydration, causing them to wake more frequently and burn precious fat reserves. This leads to starvation. Science has yet to develop an effective, ecologically appropriate means of combatting the fungus, which may kill up to 100 percent of bats in an infected cave.
Science Brings Hope
In 2012, Dr. Chris Cornelison and several colleagues at Georgia State University found that a common North America bacterium had the ability to inhibit the growth of some fungi.
This innovative treatment’s development began not with bats, but with bananas.
Dr. Cornelison, U.S. Forest Service wildlife bat specialist Dr. Sybill Amelon and research plant pathologist Dr. Daniel Lindner have been conducting laboratory research on the application of this bacterium since 2012, and in 2014-2015 conducted field trials in Missouri and Kentucky caves. Funding for this research was provided in part by Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
In the winter of 2015-2016 Cornelison and Amelon had hoped to conduct field trials with the bacteria treatment using the Conservancy's artificial cave near Clarksville, Tennessee. However, they were not able to collect enough bats to do the experimental treatments.
So far the results from the 2014-2015 field trials are the most promising sign yet that white-nose syndrome can be fought and that America's bats can be saved. Cornelison and Amelon are looking for other ways to test their experimental bacterial treatment and eventually move toward cost-effective, large-scale treatments.
But we are not holding out hope for a single silver bullet to stop WNS. "We need to have many tools in our tool box," says Katie Gillies, imperiled species director for Bat Conservation International. That's why The Nature Conservancy and Bat Conservation International funded a new group of WNS researchers in August 2016. The funded projects include:
- Testing how an environmental cleaning agent, chlorine dioxide, can be used to clean man-made hibernation sites, such as mines. (Dr. Jeff Foster, University of New Hampshire)
- Testing the effectiveness of a natural biopolymer, chitosan, for treating WNS-affected bats in the wild. (Dr. Maarten Vonhof, Western Michigan University)
- Testing the safety and effectiveness of two antimicrobial and enzyme inhibitors on WNS-affected bats. (Dr. Craig Willis, University of Winnipeg)
Our funding for projects like these comes, in large part, from people like you. Thank you for helping us make a difference for the natural world!