Monday 21 June 2010

Worry grows over white-nose syndrome's widening reach among bats

The baffling disease that's killed more than a million is found as far west as Oklahoma, where potentially infected animals share caves with migratory Mexican bats. It is expected to reach California.

June 20, 2010 | By Rachel Bernstein, Los Angeles Times

A disease killing more than a million with a mortality rate close to 100% continues to sweep across the country. First detected in New York in 2006, it is now found in 14 states in the East and South, leaving starvation and death in its wake, and is working its way westward.

This disease affects not people but hibernating bats. White-nose syndrome, so named because of the white fungus that grows on infected bats' noses, was discovered last month in Oklahoma, the farthest west it has been seen. Since it first appeared in a cave near Albany, N.Y., four years ago, more than a million bats have died, and its reach now extends northward to Ontario, Canada, and southward to Tennessee.

The discovery in Oklahoma is particularly worrisome because the bats there share caves with Mexican bats that migrate to and from Argentina. If the Mexican bats come in contact with the fungus, they could spread it widely.

"I'm afraid of what next year's map is going to look like," said biologist DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, who has been researching the disease since it was discovered. "It got farther than I expected this year."

One possible nugget of good news: The fungus that is linked to the disease grows only in cold temperatures, so bats in milder climates with shorter winters may find a reprieve. "Everyone's crossing their fingers that there's a climate barrier," said Nina Fascione, executive director of the Texas-based nonprofit Bat Conservation International.

In 2008, two years after the disease was first identified, researchers linked the fungus to the syndrome, Geomyces destructans. Exactly how it kills the bats is still a mystery, although scientists know it infects the bats' skin and appears to interfere with the animals' hibernation patterns.

During winter, healthy hibernating bats arouse about once every two weeks and in the two hours or so that they are awake, use more calories than in the entire two weeks of hibernation. In contrast, bats with white-nose syndrome wake up as frequently as every four days, speeding the depletion of their precious energy stores and in some cases leading to starvation.

"We've got to connect these dots to figure out how you go from skin infection to death," said Reeder, who conducted the hibernation study.
(Submitted by Chad Arment)

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