Glimmer of hope in race to save North America’s bats from deadly disease

Dene Moore
·National Affairs Contributor
Glimmer of hope in race to save North America’s bats from deadly disease

Researchers believe there may be a ray of hope in fighting a disease that has nearly wiped out bats in parts of eastern Canada and the United States.

Millions of bats have died from white-nose syndrome since it surfaced nearly a decade ago.

In New Brunswick, little brown, northern myotis and tri-coloured bats are nearly extirpated.

But a team of researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz say they have found a bacteria that inhibited the growth of the fungus in lab tests.

Joseph Hoyt, a graduate student who led the study, says the team is now treating bats with the bacteria to see if it protects them from the deadly disease.

“We are analyzing data from tests on live bats now, and if the results are positive, the next step would be a small field trial,“ he says in a statement announcing the potential breakthrough.

The disease is caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that grows over the bats’ faces while they hibernate in winter.

First documented in New York in the winter of 2006, the disease surfaced in Canada in 2010. It has since spread to 25 U.S. states, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia.

Left unchecked, it is expected to spread across the country.

Graham Forbes, a biologist at the University of New Brunswick and a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, says it’s too early to know if the bacteria will work as a cure for the syndrome.

“But, things are so bad that any potential response is cause for hope,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

Last December, the federal government designated the little brown, northern myotis and tri-colored bats endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

Donald McAlpine, research curator and head of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum, says the situation is so catastrophic that any glimmer of progress is cause for hope.

“The current research… is too late for the East, but may well save the lives of bats in western North America, which the disease has yet to reach (but undoubtedly will),” he tells Yahoo Canada in an email exchange.

“The best hope that remains is that some bats will have natural immunity to the infection and that populations will eventually recover naturally. This will be a very long process, though, and it is still unclear whether this will happen.”

There are still live bats in News Brunswick, he says, although there are fewer than 0.1 per cent of the number the province had when the disease hit in 2011.

Karen Vanderwolf, a bat conservation specialist at the museum, says there are several studies looking at bacteria and fungi that may control the fungus. Other research is focused on micro-organisms as a way of combatting the disease.

“We don’t know why some bats survive [white-nose syndrome] but researchers are looking at the external microbiota and genes related to the immune system for answers,” she says.

The museum is working with 15 or more other labs to try and find a solution.

The results of the UCSC studies were published this week in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.