Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Scientists study bats' hibernation to combat white-nose syndrome, which kills them; some spelunkers object

Wildlife Conservation Society scientists collect bats for examination. (New York Times photo by Kim Raff)
Biologists all over western North America are searching mines and caves to try to see how a fungal infection called white-nose syndrome will behave when it spreads to local bat populations, Jim Robbins reports for The New York Times.

Since 2006, the disease has killed millions of bats in North America, mostly in the East and Midwest, and threatened some of the continent's 47 bat species. But the disease is spreading. "Having ravaged much of the East Coast and infecting an isolated, outlier region near Seattle, white-nose syndrome is heading deep into the West at the rate of about a state per year, and has appeared on the eastern edge of the region, killing bats in South Dakota, Oklahoma and eastern Wyoming, Robbins reports.

The loss of so many bats could have terrible consequences for agriculture and ecosystems overall: "Bats play a critical ecological role, pollinating plants in some places and controlling mosquitoes and other insects," Robbins reports.

So biologists are searching caves in the West to see where the disease will pop up next. They're also trying to better understand the physiology of how bats hibernate, since that could help them find a way to combat the disease.

Not everyone is on board with the scientists' efforts though. "The National Speleological Society, a group of cave explorers who also study and work for the conservation of caves, opposes these kinds of efforts, especially the blanket closing of caves to the public to keep the disease from spreading," Robbins reports. Bat expert Merlin Tuttle told Robbins that the efforts could harm the bats, since disturbing them during hibernation may stress their systems "at a time they can least afford it."

But scientists say the data is invaluable. By gathering information about how the bats hibernate, "in areas like this where it’s not yet arrived, we can form a predictive model based on ecology, physiology, genetics and skin chemistry," said Jonathan Reichard, assistant coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service's program on white-nose syndrome.

Scientists have floated a host of solutions; one that shows promise is exposing infected bats to ultraviolet light. It kills the fungus, Reichard told Robbins, but there isn't a feasible way to deploy it.

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