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Helping bats survive white-nose syndrome

NSF Award:

The effect of sociality on transmission and spread of a multi-host pathogen  (Trustees of Boston University)

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Bats are a key part of many ecosystems. Nectar-feeding and fruit-eating bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers. Insectivorous bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects, including agricultural pest species. These insect-eating bats are worth more than an estimated $3.5 billion a year in reduced crop damage and pesticide use in the U.S.

However, a fungal infection threatens some bat populations. Caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans, white-nose syndrome is thought to spread primarily through bat-to-bat contact during winter hibernation. To find out more about how the disease spreads, scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studied the social behavior of bats during hibernation.

The UC-Santa Cruz researchers found that bat species hibernating in large, dense clusters spread the disease to one another even as bats die off and the population size decreases. Over time, this social behavior can wipe out an entire colony. In species where bats are solitary hibernators, the population decline from white-nose syndrome levels off and the colony can survive. The researchers also found that population declines due to white-nose syndrome were most severe in caves with higher humidity and temperature, regardless of bat social behavior.

As this fungal disease spreads across North America, behavioral studies of wild bats may help to predict which populations are most at risk of extinction, and perhaps allow for human intervention to mitigate population losses.

The infection has killed more than 5.5 million bats and spread to more than 14 states since it was first documented in 2006. It grows on the exposed skin of the bats and can disrupt hibernation, leading to a loss of fat reserves and eventually death.

This study was funded through the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases program--a joint NSF and National Institutes of Health competition.

Images (1 of )

  • little brown bats with white-nose syndrome
  • cluster of highly social bats in a mine
Hibernating little brown bats with white-nose syndrome in a New York state mine.
Ryan von Linden, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Cluster of highly social Indiana bats in a mine in New York state.
Al Hicks, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

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