White Nose Syndrome

Research Issue

[photo:] Eight bats showing tell-tale white fuzz of WNS. Photo credit: Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Eight bats showing tell-tale white fuzz of WNS. Photo credit: Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Since it was first recorded in 2006-2007 in Upstate New York near Albany, white nose syndrome (WNS) has killed millions of hibernating bats in the caves and abandoned mines of eastern North America, and it is spreading inexorably into the South and Midwest.

Bats are vital components of many ecosystems and eat millions of insects, including biting insects and agricultural pests. Many bat species could be facing extinction due to the rapid spread of WNS, and many of these are federally designated endangered species, including the Indiana bat, gray bat, and Virginia big-eared bat.

White nose syndrome is caused by a cold-loving fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (formerly known as Geomyces destructans), which grows on the bats’ skin. Although the fungus has been observed on bats in Europe, it has not resulted in the massive bat die-offs that are occurring in North America. P. destructans is deadly to hibernating bats because it penetrates tissues of the nose and mouth as well as the wings, which are vital to bats’ ability to avoid dehydration and maintain body temperature. Infected bats wake up more frequently than normal, exhausting their limited energy reserves long before spring. In affected hibernacula, 78 to 100% of bat populations have died; total overall deaths so far are estimated at between 5 and 6 million bats.

Losing bats has far-reaching consequences for natural ecosystems and human economies, and knowledge is the key to their conservation and protection.

Forest Service Research and Development Response
Currently, Forest Service Research and Development focuses its WNS research on three aspects:

  • minimizing exposure of uninfected bats to the pathogen
  • maximizing the survival of bats exposed to the pathogen
  • minimizing the survival and fitness of the pathogen

The Forest Service strategy to achieve these results is documented in the publication:

Amelon, Sybill; Brooks, Robert T.; Glaeser, Jessie; Friggens, Megan; Lindner, Daniel; Loeb, Susan C.; Lynch, Ann; Minnis, Drew; Perry, Roger; Rowland, Mary M.; Tomosy, Monica; Weller, Ted. 2012. U.S. Forest Service Research and Development (USFS R/D) national science strategy on White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Research and Development. 18 p.

Northern Research Station scientists are leading some of the collaborative efforts to mitigate and solve the WNS crisis. Their work investigates both bat biology and the fungus causing the disease. Bat researcher Dr. Sybill Amelon, a wildlife biologist from Columbia, MO, is evaluating normal bat skin microorganisms for possible biocontrols of the WNS fungus and is the Forest Service’s WNS research coordinator.

Drs. Jessie Glaeser and Daniel Lindner, plant pathologists from the Forest Mycology Laboratory in Madison, WI, are using their expertise with fungal DNA typing to assist partner Dr. David Blehert of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, Madison, WI, who had earlier isolated the WNS fungus.