LEWISBURG, Pa. — A few things are clear: Bats infected with the mysterious condition called white-nose syndrome spiral into a set of bizarre behaviors before they inevitably die.
They fly out of their caves in the dead of winter when they should be hibernating. They deplete their energy stores until they are near starving. And they don't seem to fight off the tell-tale white fungus when they are in their resting state.
"Something is not right," said DeeAnn Reeder, an associate professor of biology at Bucknell University who is at the forefront of national research on bats and white-nose syndrome. "They are flying in January when there is snow on the ground."
White-nose syndrome has killed more than a million bats in the Northeast during the past four years, and it is spreading across the country. Just what causes the bats to decline and die is not yet known. Reeder and her research partners have received more than $1 million in grants from federal, state and private organizations during the past two years to find answers and find them quickly.
The most recent grants, awarded this fall, include $409,000 from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (See related news release) to study the effects of white-nose syndrome on bats' behavior and physiology during hibernation and $105,000 from the State Wildlife Grant Program to buy four state-of-the-art environmental chambers or "bat caves" for testing potential treatments for white-nose syndrome. The Bucks County-based Woodtiger Fund, a private, environmentally-minded foundation, also contributed $50,000 for Reeder's general white-nose research.
Discovered in New York White-nose syndrome was discovered in hibernating bats in the winter of 2006 by a state wildlife biologist and cavers in the state of New York. It since has spread throughout New England and into the Mid-Atlantic states. Reeder, an ecophysiologist, became involved in the research in 2008, when she began to study the hibernation patterns of bats in her laboratory at Bucknell. She and several collaborators have also have tried drug treatments, including the active ingredients from some over-the-counter antifungal creams for athlete's foot, which have been demonstrated to kill the fungus. Several non-pharmaceutical compounds are also being tested, developed by Hazel Barton, a cave scientist from Northern Kentucky University. Six species of bats have been affected so far, notably the little brown bat, which is the most common kind of bat in the Northeast. Bats are beneficial to the ecosystem in part because they eat a significant number of insects, including disease-ridden mosquitoes and crop pests. Reeder and her colleagues estimate the million bats that died would have eaten 694 tons of insects last year.
The bat maze Reeder's latest research focuses on trying to uncover the reasons for the altered behavior and physiology shown by little brown bats infected with white-nose.
"We really want to get a handle on the bats' initial response to the infection by studying a series of immune parameters," Reeder said. "We are pretty sure that when they are cold, the fungus is growing and they are not fighting it off. White-nose affected bats display a number of strange behaviors, which we are hoping to quantify."
Reeder's graduate student, Sarah Brownlee, designed an obstacle course to track the flight patterns of the bats. The researchers will videotape the bats flying through the course and record their ecolocation signals, which help the bats track their positions in flight and are inaudible to humans.
"The maze is a 20-foot canopy tent with a roof and sides and white chain links positioned every four feet," said Brownlee, who received a $6,000 grant from the National Speleological Society for cameras and other equipment for white-nose research. "With the spacing, the bats should be able to fly through without problems. We are testing how white-nose affects their ability to fly through something that should be comfortable or easy."
In addition to erratic flight behaviors, white-nose affected bats display strange thermoregulatory behavior, which is the subject of graduate student Laura Grieneisen's research. Also funded by a grant from the National Speleological Society, Grieneisen has demonstrated that sick bats prefer to roost in warmer temperatures, which may allow them to better fight off infection.
Reeder and her team, which also includes graduate student Chelsey Musante, undergraduates Sarah Wade, Cathy Meade and Paul Reamey, and a soon-to-be hired postdoctoral fellow, will bring the bats into hibernation early in winter when the infection is fresh and later when it is more advanced. They will raise the temperature in the artificial bat caves to determine if the bats actively fight off white-nose.
Reeder and colleagues at the University of Winnipeg in Canada will analyze the DNA of the bats and later their offspring to determine if their susceptibility to white-nose is genetic. If the vulnerability is found to be hereditary, it may make more sense to leave the bats alone and let nature take its course, she said.
"The central question of that research is 'Who will survive?'" Reeder said. "Some of the bats will respond well and some won't. If there are certain heritable traits that let the bats survive better, then maybe we should walk away. Maybe we should not treat them because we might work against natural selection."
National Geographic Grant Reeder, a research fellow at the Smithsonian Museum, also recently received a $15,000 Waitt Grant from the National Geographic Society to conduct a biodiversity assessment and to begin to establish a conservation program in the Southern Sudan. Bucknell matched the grant with $3,000 for supplies, and the Smithsonian contributed supplies for collecting and preserving animal specimens to be kept in the museum's research collection.
Reeder, who will be pictured in a National Geographic article about white-nose syndrome in December, traveled to Africa for this unrelated research from July 26 to Aug. 20 with Brownlee, a master's candidate in animal behavior, and Grieneisen, a master's candidate in biology. Reeder, Brownlee and Grieneisen, along with Ugandan and Sudanese colleagues, trapped mammals ranging from banana bats weighing 2.6 grams to bush rats weighting more than a kilogram.
Although the Sudan is the largest country in Africa, few studies have been done in this area, largely because of decades of conflict, Reeder said. The group worked with local government officials to develop conservation programs and training. They also conducted surveys of attitudes toward wildlife.
"You can't develop conservation programs without understanding attitudes and cultural practices," Reeder said. "We found that villagers value animals for medicinal purposes and for food, regularly consuming primate and bushrat meat. Respecting cultural practices while encouraging sustainable use of natural resources can be quite a challenge."
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