Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bat-killing fungus came from Europe

City researchers leading effort to battle white-nose syndrome

  • Print

The fungus responsible for the deaths of millions of North American bats appears to be an invasive pathogen from Europe and not a new mutation, according to research led by University of Winnipeg biologists.

Since 2006, at least five million bats in 16 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces have succumbed to white-nose syndrome, a disease that appears to rouse hibernating bat species from their winter torpor, speed up their metabolisms and cause them to starve to death. Wildlife officials fear the disease may eventually kill off most if not all the hibernating bats in North America.

The fungus responsible has been identified as Geomyces destructans, which has been found on European bats but does not appear to kill them. Biologists feared a mutated version could be killing the North American bats and that such a mutation could spread to Europe.

But research led by the U of W's Craig Willis appears to conclude the lethal pathogen comes from Europe, which is a small bit of good news for bat biologists otherwise at a loss to do anything to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome.

In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an academic journal, Willis and scientists from Winnipeg, Colorado, Wisconsin, Saskatchewan and Germany found North American and European varieties of the fungus both lead to the death of little brown bats hibernating in labs.

Two winters ago, the Willis-led team captured 54 bats from a Manitoba cave, took them to a laboratory in Saskatoon and infected 18 with a fungus found in a New York cave, 18 others with the same species of fungus from a German cave and left 18 as a control group.

Using infrared cameras and radio-transmitting skin-temperature monitors, the scientists found both varieties of the fungus disturbed the torpor of the infected groups of bats and led them to deplete their fat reserves and die. By the end of the winter, the control group had enough fat to keep on hibernating.

Since European bats don't seem to be affected by the fungus, the experiment suggests bats overseas have adapted or evolved some means of protecting themselves from the pathogen, Willis said.

"We really need to look at European bats and figure out what's different about them," the biologist said Monday in an interview. "If European bats mount an immune response and antibody response, we really need to know what that is."

Inoculating wild bats, however, may be practically impossible, even if a vaccine could be developed, Willis said. "Bats are difficult to deal with because they don't do what we tell them," he quipped.

The fungus appears to be spreading in North America due to bat-to-bat contact. But the pathogen's origin in Europe suggests human beings are responsible for bringing it to this continent, Willis said.

"This tells us it's probably our fault. People have an obligation to try to fix it and see if there's something we can do," he said.

One hypothesis is recreational spelunkers or biologists who visited a cave in Europe unwittingly transmitted the fungus to a cave in New York state. Cavers and biologists alike now disinfect their clothes and equipment after visiting caves -- and stay away from known bat hibernacula.

Willis said protecting remaining hibernacula from visitors is now crucial -- especially those with low humidity, as his research also suggests bat mortality is highest in humid caves.

"If humidity is playing a role here, maybe we can find a level of humidity that still allows bats to survive but is dry enough to slow down the fungus," Willis said.

The surviving bats from the experiment were removed from their chambers, anesthetized and humanely euthanized, according to the published research.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2012 A5

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Spring fashion trends

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A goose cools off Thursday in water at Omands Creek Park-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 25– June 21, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you agree with the province’s crackdown on flavoured tobacco products?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google