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Fight against white-nose syndrome in bats takes flight in Hannibal


By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR Staff Writer | 217-221-3379 dhusar@whig.com | @DHusarWHIG

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- The bats soaring into the air might be the next weapon in the fight against a devastating killer.
Scientists released approximately 150 bats Tuesday night at the Mark Twain Cave Complex that were used in new research to find a way to stem deadly white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in 26 states.

Kirsten Alvey-Mudd, a Hannibal native and executive director of the Missouri Bat Census, held a little brown bat in her hand, then watched it flutter away in the "best possible outcome" for bats who just months ago were infected with the syndrome and in danger of dying.

Bats in the cave complex showed few signs of the syndrome last winter, but when Alvey-Mudd returned to survey Cameron Cave on Jan. 27, she saw distinct behavior patterns associated with WNS and, even worse, a large number of dead bats, the first such mass deaths reported in Missouri. Alvey-Mudd told cave owner Linda Coleberd the chances of the remaining bats living until spring were slim to none with the far-advanced WNS, but one option might help save them.

Chris Cornelison, a Georgia State University postdoctoral researcher, was working on a project looking at the ability of a bacteria, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, to delay ripening of fruit for industrial applications when he noticed the bananas also showed lower fungal growth. What worked on a banana, he thought, might work on a bat. Positive data from initial lab experiments eventually linked Cornelison with USDA Forest Service scientists Sybill Amelon and Dan Lindner to study the use of native soil bacteria that produce natural volatiles that inhibit growth of Psuedogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes WNS.

Volunteers from as far away as Colorado and West Virginia descended upon the site to help with research. Many diseased bats treated in field trials last fall experienced increased health and survival. This winter, they worked with bats at the cave complex.

"There's much research yet to be done, but we're very, very encouraged by what we see in the lab and field sites that we do have a product that has the ability to maybe help us with this situation," Amelon said.

The released bats were tagged, and research will continue at the caves which have become a primary study site.

"Tonight is a big night in the fight against white-nose," said Katie Gilles with Bat Conservation International, which provided the first grant funding to Cornelison's work. "When we look back, we'll see this as the beginning of the end."

Coleberd said it was wonderful to see researchers in so many different fields come together.

"It may not be a cure, but it's an inhibitor. It's going to slow it down," Coleberd said.

Bats are important to forests and forest health as a major predator of defoliating forest and agricultural insects. The value of bats to the agricultural industry is estimated at $23 billion per year, and Coleberd sees the benefits in the cave complex campground.

"We don't have mosquitoes in the summer because (the bats) go out and have supper in our campground. They eat twice their body weight in insects every night, then go back up into the trees during the days and sleep it off," she said.

WHITE-NOSE SYNDROME

White-nose Syndrome is a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in North America.

The fungus, Pseudogynmoascus destructans, invades the skin of hibernating bats and disrupts both their hydration and hibernation cycles.

Hibernating bats awake repeatedly during the winter, burning up limited fat reserves. They often leave hibernation sites in late winter dehydrated and in search of food, ultimately dying.

The fungus is transmitted primarily from bat to bat.

WNS today is found in 26 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes WNS is found in three more U.S. states.

Source: Bat Conservation International

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Megabats and Microbats: Fight against white-nose syndrome in bats takes flight in Hannibal
Fight against white-nose syndrome in bats takes flight in Hannibal
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