White-nose syndrome: Disrupting the balance

Fluorescent photo of bat wing showing lesions caused by white-nose syndrome.

Long-wave ultraviolet (UV) and white-light illumination of lesions associated with white-nose syndrome on the wing of a dead eastern pipestrelle//Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

If you’re a bat, hibernation is usually a time to slow down your metabolism, drop your body temperature and live off your stored fat reserves while winter does its thing. It’s a prescription for laziness, a requirement for survival. Energy is everything. So if something disrupts the balance – say, infection with Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome – disastrous consequences – death – may result.

A brand new study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that white-nose syndrome may be killing bats by increasing the amount of energy they use during hibernation, disrupting the delicate energy rationing balance they must maintain to stay healthy and alive. It’s the first time scientists have been able to explain, in detail, how the disease may be killing millions of bats in North America.

Bats hanging, showing signs of white-nose syndrome

Bats showing signs of infection with the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome./U.S. Geological Survey, Kim Miller

“This model is exciting for us, because we now have a framework for understanding how the disease functions within a bat,” says Michelle Verant, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and USGS National Wildlife Health Center, lead author of the study, in a statement from USGS.

A better understanding means scientists can work toward more effectively developing ways to help keep bats alive.

To read more, check out the study here, or read more from USGS and UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

Nik Hawkins, director of communications and public relations for the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, contributed to this post.