White-nose syndrome likely caused by invasive fungal species

New research suggests that the fungus that causes the bat-killing white nose syndrome is likely an invasive species introduced to North America from Europe.

New scientific research suggests that the fungus responsible for causing deadly white-nose syndrome in bats – a fungus called Geomyces destructans – is likely an invasive species that was introduced to North America from Europe. The results of the research were published on April 9, 2012 in an early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

White-nose syndrome is an emerging fungal disease that wildlife biologists estimate has killed more than 5.5 million bats in North America since it was first discovered in New York in 2006. By 2012, white-nose syndrome had spread to bat populations in 19 different states and 4 Canadian provinces, mostly in eastern portions of North America.

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Little brown bat with fungus on its muzzle. Image from USGS courtesy of Al Hicks, NY Department of Environmental Conservation.

Scientists have found it perplexing that this fungus is present in bat caves in both North America and Europe, but European bats are not showing any negative impacts from the disease.

So why aren’t European bats getting sick? That’s the big question floating around right now.

One hypothesis is that European bats have co-existed with the fungus for a long time and have had a chance to develop resistance to the disease, whereas the fungus may have been recently introduced into North America and bats living there have not yet had a chance to develop resistance.

The scientists reasoned that if the fungus was new to North America, samples of the fungus from Europe should cause the same symptoms of the disease in bats as those caused by samples of the fungus from North America. Indeed, that is what they observed in their study.

The scientists exposed little brown bats to samples of the fungus obtained from Europe and North America, and they observed that the bats developed white-nose syndrome regardless of where the fungus came from. They concluded that G. destructans was likely recently introduced to North America, and that the fungus probably arrived from Europe.

Their results were largely consistent with an earlier study that was published on October 26, 2011 in the journal Nature.

Ann Froschauer, who is from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was not part of the new study, commented on the results in an interview with BBC News:

We are hopeful that this will help us better understand ways that we could mitigate the effects of the disease. It could help us identify the characteristics that are allowing European bats to fight off the disease.

Lisa Warnecke, the lead author of the study that was published on April 9, 2012, is a Government of Canada Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Winnipeg. Other co-authors of the study included James Turner, Trent Bollinger, Jeffrey Lorch, Vikram Misra, Paul Cryan, Gudrun Wibbelt, David Blehert and Craig Willis.

Scanning electron micrograph of Geomyces destructans. Image courtesy of David Blehart, USGS National Wildlife Health Center.

Bottom line: New scientific research suggests that Geomyces destructans, the fungus responsible for causing white-nose syndrome in bats, is likely an invasive species that was introduced to North America from Europe. The results of the research were published on April 9, 2012 in an early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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