Terminator-esque Killer Bat Fungus Won’t Be Back; It Just Won’t Ever Be Gone

Researchers found that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats can survive under a variety of conditions and can live and grow on most carbon and nitrogen sources in caves. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Researchers found that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats can survive under a variety of conditions and can live and grow on most carbon and nitrogen sources in caves. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in the United States in a cave in New York in the winter of 2006-2007. Since that time, the disease has killed more than 5.5 million bats in the United States and Canada, and is still spreading. And if that number seems like a lot, it most certainly is. Once the disease gets even just a single infection inside of a cave, the mortality rate of the entire bat colony ranges from 90 – 100 percent.

Just two years ago, researchers from across the country banded together to identify the reason behind the mortality rates. The fungus they identified was dubbed Pseudogymnoascus destructans and after many tests, was revealed to be the sole reason for the continent-wide devastation. For more background, check out my coverage of the findings back in October 2011.

Now, the University of Illinois is also throwing its weight behind the examination of this apocalyptical fungus. The reason should be pretty straight-forward – white-nose disease finally found its way into the state.

Earlier this year, a single bat with the disease turned up in one northern Illinois cave. Just more than a month later, the entire cave was infected. And just like everywhere else in the country, it is spreading with reckless abandon. The question researchers at the University of Illinois posed, then, is whether or not there is any way to slow it down.

To find out, scientists tried to cultivate the fungus on a wide range of surfaces in a wide range of environments. What they discovered is that the fungus is basically the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator of biological superbugs.

Take any carbon-based surface in a cave. Any of them at all. We’re talking about the bodies of insects, undigested bits of insects in bat shit, fish swimming around in cave lakes and streams, logs, sticks, other types of fungi dead or alive – P. destructans can grow on them all. Throw in factors like temperature, acidity levels, and anything else you can think of, and the facts remain the same.

P. destructans is here to stay.

Even after an entire population of bats is eradicated from a cave, the fungus will still live on. Obviously this is bad news for bats everywhere. No matter what conservationists try to do to currently healthy caves and bat populations, they can’t make the caves less hospitable to the transmission and growth of the epidemic.

The one limitation to the findings is the fungus’s ability to take up water, which is essential to pretty much every known form of life. If you stick it on a dry piece of wood – which tends to soak up and hold onto water for its own sake – the fungus can’t get enough liquid to thrive. Of course, that news doesn’t do much good as scientists cannot dry out entire systems of caves nor can they make bats that are made out of wood.

“All in all the news for hibernating bats in the U.S. is pretty grim,” said Andrew Miller, survey mycologist on the project. “We found that P. destructans can live perfectly happily off the remains of most organisms that co-inhabit the caves with the bats. This means that whether the bats are there or not, it’s going to be in the caves for a very long time.”

The study, “Nutritional Capability of and Substrate Suitability for Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the Causal Agent of Bat White-Nose Syndrome,” was published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) One by Miller from the Illinois Natural History Survey, and Daniel Raudabaugh, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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