Earth Notes: White-Nose Fungus

Apr 25, 2018

One-quarter of all mammal species are bats—and they’re a prominent feature of night skies across North America. But a devastating disease has swept westward across the country since 2006, causing bat numbers to decline drastically.

Sampling a bat
Credit Northern Arizona University

The culprit is white-nose syndrome. This fungus has left millions of bats dead in its wake across 33 states and five Canadian provinces.

Now a team led by researchers at Northern Arizona University has used genomic sequencing to trace where this fungus came from—and how it’s spreading.

It took a whole suite of sequencing tools to unravel the puzzle hidden in the pathogen’s DNA, says lead researcher Jeff Foster. It seems the fungus arrived within the last 10 years—most likely from Europe—making frequent, long-distance movements consistent with bat migrations.

White-nose syndrome has spread west, reaching Texas last year, infecting Townsend’s big-eared bats, big brown bats, and cave myotis—species also common in northern Arizona.

But unlike the huge colonies of bats in the East, Southwestern cave bats usually gather in small dispersed groups—potentially limiting disease spread. And, the fungus can only grow during hibernation—when bats’ bodies and their surroundings are cold.  

If they get infected, bats in Arizona are more likely to be able to wake up, warm up, and feed during winter—replenishing their fat reserves—and hopefully limiting the impact of this deadly fungus in our region.