Back in winter 2006, bat researchers discovered unusual whitish spots on bat noses in Howes Cave near New York. In the following winters, these observations were also made at other hibernation sites across New York State and were associated with dead bats on the floor. It then became clear that a fungus had killed them! These symptoms quickly led the researchers to coin the term “white-nose syndrome”.
Now, the situation is devastating. Within ten years, the deadly disease has spread over half of the North American continent. Millions of bats have died and some species have become extinct in certain regions. Bat populations are very sensitive to high fatality rates, because most species only reproduce one baby per year. Bats with “white noses” have also been observed in several European countries, but the fungus’ effects on bats in Europe remains controversial.
Researchers from the University of Greifswald (Germany) have been investigating the white-nose fungus and its relationship to bats in Europe since the fungus was first discovered in 2009. With the crucial help of several hundreds of experienced surveyors, who controlled 318 hibernacula in 30 countries, the researchers were able to show that bat mortality rates in the observed bats is generally very low at hibernacula in Europe and, importantly, not related to the presence of the fungus growing on bats. Their new study, published in Mammal Review, “provides further support for the hypothesis that the fungus was accidentally introduced to North America and originated from Europe” explains Marcus Fritze. Indeed, previous studies have revealed that the fungus found in North America is genetically very similar to its European counterparts, but very different from Asian isolates.
The scientists suspect that humans unintentionally introduced the fungus to North America. It is suggested, that European bats adapted to the fungus over long periods of time – an adaptation that was not possible for the North American bats, because they were never exposed to this pathogen until 2006. “Based on our genetic studies, the white-nose fungus must have been present in Europe for a long time” says Dr. Sebastien Puechmaille from the Zoological Institute in Greifswald. Together with colleagues, volunteer bat workers, conservationists and researchers from all over Europe, the scientists have sampled infected bats and are now using genomic data to identify the region in Europe from where the fungus was transferred to America, as well as when and how it happened. From a practical point of view, identifying the source population and the mode of introduction would provide crucial knowledge for avoiding similar events from happening again and the fungus being introduced to other parts of the world.
Marcus Fritze, Sébastien J. Puechmaille, Identifying unusual mortality events in bats: a baseline for bat hibernation monitoring and white nose syndrome research. Mammal Review, March 2018.
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Applied Zoology and Nature Conservation
Dr. Sébastien J. Puechmaille
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