The Fungus Among Us

The Fungus Among Us

Just in time for Halloween, scientists may be one step closer to solving the mystery of a fatal illness afflicting one of the icons of the underworld—bats. In the last two years more than 100,000 bats in the northeastern United States have died from a disease known as white-nose syndrome. Identified by the namesake white, powdery substance on the bats’ muzzles, ears, and wings, this puzzling affliction emaciates and dehydrates the nocturnal animals during their hibernation period. Now scientists have isolated a fungus that could be the culprit attacking bats with vampire-like swiftness.

Rene Ebersole
Published: 10/31/2008
Nancy Heaslip, NY Department of Environmental Conservation

Just in time for Halloween, scientists may be one step closer to solving the mystery of a fatal illness afflicting one of the icons of the underworld—bats. In the last two years more than 100,000 bats in the northeastern United States have died from a disease known as white-nose syndrome. Identified by the namesake white, powdery substance on the bats’ muzzles, ears, and wings, this puzzling affliction emaciates and dehydrates the nocturnal animals during their hibernation period. Now scientists have isolated a fungus that could be the culprit attacking bats with vampire-like swiftness.

David Blehert, a microbiologist with the US Geological Survey, isolated the fungus found on the bats’ bodies and identified it as a previously unknown member of the Geomyces genus of fungi, which can grow in air, water, and soil and survive even the coldest days of winter. “I think this is a very important first step,” Blehert says. “Now that we have a significant lead, we can develop more specific tests to find out where the fungus is present.”

Blehert is the lead author of a paper in the current issue of Science; the research was done in collaboration with the New York Department of Health, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and a number of other institutions.

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in February, 2006 in two caves near Albany, New York. Within a year, the disease spread from New York to Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. How the disease is being distributed remains a mystery. The bats could be carrying it to other caves as they move between their hibernation and breeding sites, as far as 200 miles away. The fungal spores could be transferred by wind. Or animals, particularly raccoons or skunks that scavenge on bats, could be shuttling the pathogen from place to place.

Bats perform a number of important ecological services that help humans, from pollinating crops and spreading seeds to eating insect pests. (See "Graveyard Shift" in Audubon's September-October 2006 issue; article available in print only—email editor@audubon.org to order a copy). So far six bat species are afflicted by white-nose syndrome: brown bats, northern bats, tricolored bats, Indiana bats, small-footed myotis and big brown bats. And scientists are concerned about the future of those species. “We’ve documented that [the disease] has caused unprecedented losses to hibernating cave bats in the northeast,” says Blehert. “A wildlife species can only sustain those kind of losses for so long.”