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Bat Bacteria Helps Battle White-Nose Syndrome

Apr 14, 2015 06:01 PM EDT
white nose syndrome

(Photo : USFWS/Ann Froschauer)

White nose syndrome (WNS) has been a rampant problem for nearly a decade, resulting in a decline of many bat colonies in North America. Now researchers are surprised to learn that a bacteria that naturally grows on the skin of some bats could be a powerful weapon against the deadly fungus.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the disease was first identified in New York State in late 2006 and has since spread throughout the eastern US (as far as Mississippi) and Canada. It is characterized by a white fungal infection that covers the muzzle and wings of bats. The fungus saps strength from the wintering mammals and, as of July, has killed more than 5.7 million bats since discovered.

Past studies have revealed the exact mechanism for how this fungus does its damage, but whether or not humanity should intervene in a more direct way than simply giving bats new fungus-free places to roost (ie- bat houses, abandoned buildings) remains unclear. After all, some experts think some bat colonies are already on their way to recovery, having actually changed their social and roosting strategies to avoid rampant spread of infection.

Now comes more good news, as researchers managed to isolate bacteria from the skin of four bat species. The bacteria isolated were then tested for their ability to inhibit the growth of the fungus, naturally making some bats more resituate to WNS than others. Six bacterial isolates (all in the genus Pseudomonas) showed promise and were tested more extensively.

The results were published in the journal PLOS One, showing that these isolates are able to suppress WNS infections for more than 35 days of frequent exposure.

"What's promising is that the bacteria that can inhibit the fungus naturally occur on the skin of bats," study lead Joseph Hoyt said in a statement. "These bacteria may just be at too low a level to have an effect on the disease, but augmenting them to higher abundances may provide a beneficial effect."

And doing so may be the least intrusive nudge declining bat populations need to stay clear of extinction. (Scroll to read on...)

A northern long-eared bat affected by white-nose syndrome in Illinois.
(Photo : J.R. Hoyt.) An endangered northern long-eared bat affected by white-nose syndrome in Illinois.

"The potential for a treatment is exciting, because this disease is raging across the country," added coauthor Marm Kilpatrick, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

A wildlife disease expert, Kilpatrick described how four bat species in particular have been nearly wiped out by WNS. The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), for instance, has seen local colony declines ranging from 90 to 100 percent, causing bat families to splinter and change their habits. Meanwhile, North America's northern long-eared bats (Myotis septentrionalis) has seen such intense decline that it was recently granted protections under the FWS' Endangered Species Act.

"Everywhere the disease has been for a couple of years, [M. septentrionalis] is gone," Kilpatrick said. "We don't have any tools right now to protect this species."

Still, much more work will need to be done before researcher dream up a way to get the helpful bacterial strains to work overtime for bats in need.

"This study is just the first step in investigating that possibility," Hoyt explained, going on to add that as things stand it is only known that these bacteria can aid the bat species they were found on.Whether they can help threatened bats resist WNS as well is the subject of ongoing work.

"We are analyzing data from tests on live bats now, and if the results are positive, the next step would be a small field trial," he said.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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