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Some Bat Colonies Might Be Beating White-Nose Syndrome

A few recent discovering on the strange fungus wiping out North American bat colonies give reason to hope

Northern long-eared bat ( Michael Durham/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Since white nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in the winter of 2007-2008, the fungus has killed millions of insect-eating bats in the U.S. and Canada. Pseudogymnoascus destructans infections pushes bats’ metabolism into overdrive. Infected bats use twice as much energy while they try to hibernate than healthy bats. That disruption can burn through the little animals’ fat stores and kill them before spring comes, new research shows.

Just knowing that, though, is one reason to see more than doom in the bats' future.

"[W]e now have a framework for understanding how the disease functions within a bat,” Michelle Verant, a study author and researcher at the University of Wisconsin and USGS National Wildlife Health Center scientist, says in a statement. With that understanding, researchers can figure out how to help the bats survive.

Even without our aid, it seems some bat populations are still hanging on by a toe-hold. Brian Mann for NPR reports that one Vermont cave, after years of carnage, still has resident bats.

"It's a little bit of a curveball to be here today, six years after being here and seeing all the dead bats, to think that there are still bats in there," [says Jonathan Reichard, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service].

He feared that this disease might exterminate the animals, sweeping them from large parts of North America. "The declines in that species have slowed down or even reversed in some cases. There's evidence that colonies may even be increasing at a slight tick," Reichard says.

That cave isn’t the only one seeing a slight increase after years of decline. Researchers are hopeful that the trends are now changing, but still need more data, writes Jane J. Lee for National Geographic.

Saving the bats is a worthwhile endeavor, not only because they keep populations of pesky insects in check, but because the flying mammals can tell us a lot about evolution and disease transmission. There’s much to investigate. Bats have specialized brain cells that help them orient as they fly, they are surprisingly long-lived for such small critters and they are strangely immune to many viruses, writes Natalie Angier for the New York Times:

Bat experts argue that a keener understanding of bat biology could not only help prevent the next outbreak of Ebola or other cross-species “zoonotic” infection, but also offer a fresh take on immune and inflammatory disorders like diabetes or heart disease.

For example, a recent analysis of bat genomes shows a surprisingly high number of genes that fix damaged DNA. Bats could have ramped up those repair mechanisms to deal with the excess DNA-damaging free radicals produced by bats’ energy-intensive flight. Angier writes that "countering DNA damage happens to be a great strategy for overall health, which could explain bats’ exceptional longevity and apparent resistance to cancer." Very few bat tumors have ever been found, she notes.

Still, if bats or humans don’t figure out how to combat the white-nose plague, we’ll never get a chance to fully unlock the flying mammal’s secrets. 

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