My colleagues in the scientific communications group at Promega are pretty sure that I have bats in my belfry. And, they may be right. After all I have written extensively and repeatedly about bats in North America and the threat that they are facing from White Nose Syndrome, the devastating disease caused by a cold-loving fungus (you can read my last post here). And, just last week I skipped an awesome party on Rainey Street in Austin, TX, to instead hang out by the Congress Ave bridge in hopes of seeing the urban bats fly.
On a blustery, frigidly cold day in mid-April, a small gathering of cub scouts from one of several local packs congregated outside the Lussier Heritage Center on the southern end of Madison for the annual bat festival. They had braved the elements to see these furry creatures, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and to put aside the myth that they are little more than Transylvanian-born vampiric vermin. The cub scouts had come to hear the experts talk. And there could have been no better person for the job of getting the education process started than conservationist Rob Mies- indisputably the star of this year’s bat show.
In a recent post, I wrote about White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) in hibernating bats in North America. WNS was first documented on February 2006, by a recreational caver exploring Howes Cave in New York, who photographed a bat with an unusual white growth on its muzzle. In the few years since that picture was snapped, hundreds of thousands of bats in North America have died from White-Nose Syndrome (1,2).
Suffering bats are emaciated with little or no body fat and have a characteristic white fungal growth on their wing membranes, ears and muzzles. Instead of hibernating all winter, these bats can be seen active in the snow, when there is virtually no food available for them (1,2).
The white fungal growth observed on the bats is the result of infection with a cold-loving fungus, which has been identified as a new species within the Geomyces genus, Geomyces destructans (note added in 2016: this fungus is now called Pseudogymnoascus destructans) (1,3). Analysis of G. destructans samples suggests that the bats have been infected with G. destructans originating from a single source (3).
So far, according to Dr. David Blehert at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) – National Wildlife Health Center, no data indicate that there is any other etiologic agent at play here. G. destructans is the primary suspect. G. destructans has been found on hibernating bats in caves in Germany, France, Hungary, and Switzerland. However the affected bats in Europe are not emaciated, and those affected bats that were tracked after the initial isolation remained healthy (4). As far as scientists can tell, the European and North American isolates of G. destructans are the same.