Meet the bat scientists

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual White-nose Syndrome conference hosted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bat Conservation International in Little Rock, Arkansas. What an inspiring group of dedicated professionals rallying around the devastating situation of massive bat die-offs across the eastern US. There were over a hundred people in attendance with another hundred joining in virtually through video and phone conferencing – representing federal and state natural resource managers, academic researchers and other non-governmental organizations that are all deeply involved in trying to find the answers and any solutions to the lethal spread of white-nose syndrome throughout our nation's bats. 

The first day of the meeting was presentations on the latest research – this is research that is desperately needed and was funded in part by an appropriation secured by Senators Lautenberg and Leahy in 2010 and distributed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Many of the projects were also funded by smaller grants administered by the National Speleological Society or other organizations.  The conference provides a way for the scientists to communicate their findings with their colleagues even before their results are published so that their research can be shared in a timely manner and they can each learn from one another as they all try to decipher the puzzle of this malady.  After each scientist’s presentation there were at least 10 other scientists lined up to ask questions and provide their own thoughts on the outcome.  They would ask, “Have you tried….”, “Did you consider….”, “What we have seen is….”, “ You might want to look at….” It was more than just a presentation of the most recent research – it was collaborative research in the making.

And each talk clearly illustrated the complexity of the problems that these researchers face.  For example, here are a few things I learned:

1. Fungi are weird. Ok, that may not sound very complicated, but did you know that bats can host over a hundred different species of fungi? And that fungi are not that distantly related to animals such that it is difficult to find treatments that will target the fungus and not also harm the host animal? The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome (Geomyces destructans, or “G. d.”) is in a different group of fungi than most fungi that cause disease in mammals which is why scientists first doubted that it was the primary cause of death in white-nose syndrome. Did you also know that scientists describe fungi largely based on morphological traits which means that the same fungus may have completely different scientific names in different sexual stages?  In fact, “G. d.” has only been recorded in its asexual stage and has never been observed in its sexual stage which would likely be named something completely different. This also means that its life cycle is not completely understood including how it is transmitted in different stages of its life cycle. See?  Complicated.

2. Baseline data are needed. Another problem that scientists are facing is that there hasn’t been a lot of baseline data recorded for many of the caves where white-nose syndrome has hit.  This means that it is difficult to assess the number of bats lost and whether any remaining bats are survivors from that same cave or whether they have moved in from other locations. This means that part of current research efforts need to focus on acquiring this type of baseline data for unaffected caves so that if and when white-nose gets there we have a more accurate picture of how it is affecting the bats in terms of mortality and survivorship.

3. This research takes time.  One of the most striking lessons from this conference is just how much time it takes to get one season of data that then needs to be duplicated to verify the results.  These experiments are taking place both out in the field and also in laboratories both on the fungus and the bats.  So, for example, the geneticists who are looking for the origin of the fungus need months to culture each different strain of fungus before they can extract the DNA and run the analysis that they need. For those working on bats in the laboratory, there can be all kinds of logistical complications with the equipment that is designed to mimic cave conditions including refrigeration and humidity.  And again, duplicating results can mean doing the experiment over again next year. 

4. This research takes money.   For those in the field, results were often affected by the timing of the funding that they received to conduct the study with limited funds often being made available in January meaning that some of the critical winter months (November and December) went unsurveyed.  Funding – in terms of how much money is available and when – was a topic that surfaced a number of times throughout the meeting.  In one instance, Dr. Tom Kunz showed a slide of the letter that Senators Lautenberg and Leahy had circulated in support of acquiring funding for white-nose syndrome research that led to the $1.2 million that was awarded in 2010 noting an appreciation for those efforts and funds while asking, “Now tell me, who here still needs more funding?” And on that, the answer was unanimous.

The second day of the conference continued with more research reports followed by break-out sessions for states and working groups that have been assembled as part of the USFWS’ National Plan. These working groups – and the plan in general – are designed to facilitate even more coordinated exchange of information on particular aspects of this wildlife crisis such as the epidemiological and ecological aspects, the disease diagnostics, surveillance and management aspects and the conservation and recovery aspects, for example.

Although the topic of this conference – the loss of over a million bats due to a deadly fungus – was a grim one, I was heartened and inspired by this dedicated group of individuals rallying around the cause – an issue about which they all clearly feel deeply passionate.  It also reassured me as we continue to work to try to get Congress to dedicate additional funds for white-nose syndrome, that there is an army of scientists and natural resource managers that are organized and hard at work trying to find the answers that will help us better understand this disease and its effect on our bats.

Senators Lautenberg and Leahy have again taken the lead in the Senate this year in requesting additional funds and Representative Welch in the House is also leading the charge.  If you haven’t already taken action to let your representatives know that you support funding for white-nose syndrome research, please go here.  The bats – and the scientists – will thank you.

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