Bat-killing disease bad news for North America’s ecosystems

A disease that emerged in Albany, NY in 2007 has killed over 5.7 million bats in North America to date, and it is spreading west, potentially towards British Columbia.

White Nose Syndrome inflames the wings and mucus membranes of bats, causing them to awaken from hibernation prematurely and starve to death. The syndrome is caused by a fungus called pseudogymnoascus destructans, or PD, that produces fuzzy white fungal growths around a bat’s nose.

TRU researchers are working hard to find out when White Nose Syndrome could hit bats in Western Canada because it would hurt not only the bat population, but also the balance of our ecosystems.

Tri-colored bat with visible symptoms of WNS from Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia. (National Park Service/Flickr)

Tri-coloured bat with visible symptoms of WNS from Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia. (National Park Service/Flickr)

“Bats play a major role in pollination and agricultural pest control,” microbiology student Laura Smylie said.

After receiving an Undergraduate Research Experience Award (UREAP) earlier this year, Smylie spent her summer collaborating with TRU faculty to detect the presence of PD in the Horne Lake Caves in B.C. and Rat’s Nest Cave in Alberta. These caves are popular among tourists and cavers who could potentially carry and spread the PD spores to other caves they visit.

“I worked to isolate fungi found in environmental soil samples collected from the caves and extracted DNA present in the soil,” she said.

The soil samples and DNA were processed in laboratories, where researchers attempted to grow the PD fungus. Doing so would confirm the presense of PD in the sampled caves.

“We want to get some baseline info for our Western caves,” said TRU microbiologist Naowarat Cheeptham.

Cheeptham supervises the UREAP research projects of microbiology students like Smylie. According to a document she produced this year, “all [of the] sampled sites displayed a negative result for the presence of P. destructans.”

In the summer of 2013, microbiology student Baylee Out conducted a UREAP-funded study on the seven Nakimu caves within Glacier National Park, which is roughly 75 kilometers outside of Revelstoke, B.C. Out obtained 29 soil samples and 26 environmental swabs from them and identified close relatives of the PD fungus within some of them.

There is still much to be learned about the White Nose Syndrome and PD fungus, according to Cheeptham.

“Now we’re trying to figure out where this fungi came from. Where did we see it before 2006?” she said.

PD is common in European caves, but Cheeptham said the bat population there does not suffer from it the same way North American bats do.

“Did it come from tourists in Europe? Do our bats here have a weaker immune system in North America? Maybe we use too much insecticide or pesticide, which kills their main source of food.”

These are questions that remain unanswered, but could provide valuable insight into how to respond to the PD outbreak in North America.

Another TRU student, Mitchell Johnson, recently began research to determine environmental factors that affect the winter activity of various B.C. bat species.