"There are more questions than answers for sure with white-nose syndrome. As soon as we figure out one thing, it raises 10 more questions. Meanwhile, it marches on."
Southern Sudan hooked Associate Professor of Biology DeeAnn Reeder on her first visit. "I kept looking up at the night sky, watching all of these amazing bats, and I thought, 'I have got to come back here and study these,'" she says. Four years later, in 2008, she did. "I was like a kid in a candy store," she says. "Everything is so amazing and exotic. Every bat in your hand is something so phenomenally interesting."
The opportunity to work in a country that war has made inaccessible for years fits Reeder's interest in geopolitical influences on the discovery of new species. She is the co-editor of the book Mammal Species of the World and its companion website for taxonomic research. "Our sense of global biodiversity is biased because of political influences and because some areas are just really hard to work in," she says. Her minister husband's humanitarian work in Sudan provided the chance to explore just such an under-sampled region.
With support from the National Geographic/Waitt Grants Program, Reeder and two of her graduate students conducted a rapid assessment of small-mammal biodiversity in southern Sudan in summer 2010. Based on her previous visits, she won't be surprised to discover new species. The team also facilitated training for local wildlife officials, and surveyed villagers about their experiences with and feelings about wildlife. In an area where drought and war have decimated the food supply, animals are generally seen as something to eat. Reeder's students have assembled a field guide to the local mammals, including the tribal names where possible. "The more we can inform people about their biodiversity, the more we can help support conservation," she said.
Reeder's bat expertise has attracted media attention recently. She has become one of the leading researchers on white-nose syndrome, a disease that has been causing massive die-offs of bats in North America since 2006. First discovered in New York, the disease appears to be caused by a fungus that infects bats while they are hibernating in caves.
Prior to the outbreak of white-nose syndrome, Reeder studied questions of how the endocrine and immune systems allow wild and free-ranging animals to deal with changes in their environment. This experience, plus her unique set-up for housing bats in captivity, vaulted her to the fore of white-nose research. Having a bat vivarium and a flight cage at Bucknell allows Reeder to track individual bats over time and control the temperature and humidity at which they hibernate.
So far, Reeder has found that white-nose syndrome interrupts bats' hibernation, causing them to starve to death. She is now working to understand how a fungal skin infection causes such drastic consequences. "There are more questions than answers for sure with white-nose syndrome," Reeder says. "As soon as we figure out one thing, it raises 10 more questions. Meanwhile, it marches on. It is as far as Oklahoma now."
Posted Sept. 2010
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