Biodiversity: More bad news for bats

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White-nose syndrome may be nearly impossible to eradicate from caves.

New study traces biological evolution of bat-killing fungus

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A new study by University of Akron scientists forecasts a gloomy future for North American bats, showing that the fungus that causes the deadly white-nose syndrome can likely survive in caves with or without the presence of bats.

The persistence of the fungus threatens regional extinction of some bat species, according to the new study published in PLOS One. White-nose syndrome has killed almost 7 million bats and appears to be relentlessly spreading across the country.

“The ability of the fungus to grow in caves absent of bats would mean that future attempts to reintroduce bats to caves would be doomed to failure,” said University of Akron associate biology professor Hazel Barton.

Bats are critical food plant pollinators and offer important information used in medical research, particularly as it pertains to blindness. There is an ecological consequence to bat extinction: A single bat can eat thousands of insects in a single night. Bats are critical to controlling bugs that threaten agriculture and forestry; their pest-control value to the economy is estimated in the billions of dollars.

The UA research identified cold-loving, cave-dwelling fungi closely related to WNS, and where and how they spread, and how they survive. These findings help predict the future of North American bats — among them — the common Little Brown Bat, first seen with WSN in Ohio in March 2011.

Barton and UA postdoctoral fellow Hannah Reynolds compare two closely related fungi species and reveal common threads, including the discovery that the related fungi share the same nutritional needs.

Originally satisfied by cave soil, the fungus’ nutritional source has now transferred to bats. Barton and her colleagues are zeroing in on when the fungus transferred from environment to bat and the consequences of the fungus’ relentless ability to survive solely in caves, uninhabited by bats.

“The jump from the environment to the bat has come at the expense of some ability for Pd to grow in the environment, but not entirely,” says Barton, who adds that the fungus still retains enough function to grow exclusively in caves in the absence of bats.

Ongoing research in Barton’s UA lab continues to examine the sustainability of WNS to help determine the future of bats amid the deadly disease.

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