Mysterious bat killer found


White-nose syndrome

Mystery solved? The white substance growing on the noses of these hibernating bats, has been linked to a previously undescribed fungus.

Credit: Al Hicks, New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation

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SYDNEY: Researchers may have discovered the mysterious bat killer which has ripped through hibernating colonies in the northeastern states of the USA.

White-nose syndrome (WNS), as the disease is known, has killed 200,000 bats since it was discovered in 2006.

Wildlife scientists who first found the malady were baffled by the sharp decline of bats, and an unknown white substance found on their muzzles, ears and wings.

Previously unknown fungus

The condition has now wiped out over 75 per cent of many bat colonies in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.

But now researchers, led by microbiologist David Blehert, with the USGS National Wildlife Centre in Madison, Wisconsin, have identified the white substance found on the skin and fur of afflicted bats as a previously undescribed fungus of the genus Geomyces.

The researchers reported the findings in the US journal Science

Co-worker Melissa Behr, a veterinary pathologist at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab says the fungus was the only point of difference between affected and non-affected bats.

Finding the fungus is the first step in understanding the epidemic, said Blehert, who added that "we can now address more specific questions, such as whether the fungus we identified causes WNS by itself or whether there are other factors involved."

The scientists cautioned, though, that even if this fungus is proved to be the killer, treating it may not be simple.

Difficult to treat

"Usually, once a disease has been characterised, we get to work on a cure. In case of a fungus, there are many topical and systemic antifungal drugs that can be used," said Behr. "However, it's very impractical to think of using such drugs on a large wild animal population."

"The challenge would be to develop a treatment effective at the level of the [entire] northeastern U.S. bat population," agreed Blehert. Though most wildlife epidemics are left to run their course naturally, he said, one possible treatment, could simply be to keep infected bats warm. "The fungus only actively grows in the cold… [so] a cure may be as simple as warming them up."

The biggest victim of the syndrome is the little brown bat Myotis lucifugus, but many species have been affected.