General

Volume 38, Issue 2, 2019

Holistic Approach

Fat bats withstand effects of White-nose Syndrome


wnsschirm
A close-up of the signature symptom of White-nose Syndrome on a
cluster of little brown myotis in Canoe Creek Mine.
Photo: M.Schirmacher.

Two of Bat Conservation International’s esteemed scientists, Tina Cheng and Winifred Frick, published a paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology titled, “Higher Fat Stores Contribute to the Persistence of Little Brown Bat Populations with White-nose Syndrome.” While White-nose Syndrome (WNS) has pushed some bat populations closer to extinction, our researchers have found that higher fat stores are helping some little brown bats survive this deadly disease.

WNS is a debilitating disease that has decimated bat populations throughout North America. The disease is caused by a fungal pathogen that infects the skin of hibernating bats, often appearing as white fuzzy patches on their noses and wings. Eventually, WNS causes bats to burn through stored fat reserves, resulting in death by starvation.

The paper’s authors set out to learn more about why certain populations of little brown bats in the northeastern United States are persisting while afflicted with WNS, even after initial population declines. They wanted to determine if these populations of bats were protected by increased fat stores in winter or if they were resistant to or escaping infection. The researchers collected data on disease status and fat stores from six remnant little brown bat colonies, specifically comparing data from 2009, when WNS first hit, to 2016, several years after these bat colonies started to show signs of stabilization from WNS.

“Understanding how bats are able to survive WNS is important for helping us to strategically help other affected bat colonies,” said Cheng. “What’s interesting about these surviving little brown bats is that they are using a physiological mechanism of building up higher winter fat stores that helps them tolerate this disease. It shows that these bats have a great deal of resilience, and that other affected colonies may also be able to survive if we can give them a helping hand.”

This study suggests that helping bats to survive WNS may require a holistic approach. In lieu of extinguishing or reducing the fungal pathogen, people can help bats improve their body condition in preparation for winter. Such actions could include protecting critical foraging habitats, creating prey patches where bats can forage and restoring critical foraging habitats, such as wetlands.

Bats, such as the little brown bat, play a critical role in our ecosystem as consumers of insects, including agricultural pests. Understanding how bats respond to huge perturbations, such as WNS, contributes to our greater understanding of how we can protect these and other affected colonies.

The coauthors of the paper include researchers and scientists from various academic institutions and organizations including University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Arizona State University; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; University of Winnipeg; and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

 

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