White nose syndrome in bats caused by deadly fungus

By Olivia Seecof

Writer

Professor of biology DeeAnn Reeder, along with other scientists, identified the fungus that causes the deadly white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats. This finding will help prevent the extinction of these bats in eastern parts of North America.

White-nose syndrome was discovered in hibernating bats during the winter of 2006 in New York, but has since spread throughout New England and into the Mid-Atlantic states. Reeder became involved in this research in 2008 when she began to study the hibernation patterns of bats in her laboratory at the University.

So far, this syndrome has affected six species of bats, including the common little brown bat. Bats with white-nose syndrome have been found dead, starving and flying during the day in cold temperatures after prematurely emerging from hibernation.

Researchers identified the white fungus found on the sick bats to be Geomyces destructans during a study conducted at the national Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

“For a long time, a lot of us–-myself included–-said fungal infections don’t kill mammals, so that can’t be what is killing the bats,” Reeder said. “But it turns out that because of the bat’s unique hibernation cycle and the nature of the fungus, it does kill them.”

The project was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bat Conservation International and the Indiana State University Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation.

Now that scientists have identified the fungus as the cause of the syndrome, researchers can focus on a finding a cure.

“Confirming that Geomyces destructans is the causative agent of WNS and that it is spread through direct contact between bats is a great achievement. With this understanding, subsequent research will be better focused and ideally will lead to a solution to mitigating this detrimental disease,” graduate research student Megan Vodzak said. 

“Having been a part of DeeAnn’s lab when this seminal investigation was just getting underway, I feel very excited to finally see it in print. These results have major implications for the white-nose syndrome research community and they will undoubtedly shape the way in which we approach future research and conservation efforts,” graduate research student Chelsey Musante said.  

University biology students are also excited about the recent discovery.

“I have been fortunate enough to witness a diverse set of scientists from several institutions working collaboratively in their efforts to unravel the mystery behind white-nose syndrome,” Morgan Furze ’12 said.

This finding is incredibly important for the scientific community, and it is an honor for a University faculty member to be a leading member of the team.

“The biology department is lucky to have Dr. Reeder as a member of our department. Her nationally recognized work with white-nose syndrome in bats enhances the reputation of the department. Dr. Reeder has been a research mentor to many of our students. She also draws on the expertise of other faculty in the department to help understand this devastating disease affecting little brown bats in the Northeast U.S.,” said professor of biology and biology department chair Marie Pizzorno. 

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