White-Nose Syndrome in Bats: Definition, Facts, Symptoms & Cure

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In the past decade, more than six million bats have died from white-nose syndrome. In this lesson, you'll learn about the syndrome, including symptoms and a newly discovered cure.

Deadly Fungus

When you think of fungus, you might initially think about mushrooms, or other fungi that grow on trees or on the ground. But did you know there are also diseases caused by fungus? Athlete's foot is one example for humans. Currently there is a significant and deadly fungal infection affecting bats called white-nose syndrome. This disease affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd). The fungus grows on an infected bat's nose, wings, and ears, causing a white, fuzzy appearance.

White-nose syndrome has recently been discovered and has only been infecting hibernating bats since 2006. However, in just a decade it has affected at least 23 different species in North America, Europe, and Asia, and more than 6 million bats have died in North America alone. If a colony of bats becomes infected, the mortality rate, or percent of infected bats that die, is near 100%.

White-nose syndrome is named for the appearance of infected bats
Infected brown bat

How Is It Transmitted?

Pd is most commonly spread between bats, so infected bats spread it to the rest of their colony. However, people can also bring spores, or 'seeds' of the fungus, into caves on their clothing, shoes, equipment, and even on their dogs. At this point, the fungus does not affect humans. However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has put out specific guidelines for decontaminating yourself and your equipment before entering a cave. The best way to prevent the spread is to avoid caves where you know there are bats.

The fungus prefers cold environments, so it's the most destructive during winter. Bats hibernate, or sleep during the winter, and they rely on hibernation to keep them alive during the colder months. When they hibernate, the bats' immune systems are weak, and this is when the fungal infection can really take hold.

How Does It Affect Bats?

After they are infected, bats often grow a white fuzz on their nose, wings, and ears. This typically goes away when they wake up from hibernation, but the fungus is still there. It attacks and eats away deep tissue, especially inside the wings. Wing damage is one of the reasons bats die from white-nose syndrome. They can also die from dehydration, and other symptoms include trouble breathing and regulating body temperature.

Infected bats sometimes behave unusually. They wake up during hibernation and move around during the winter when they should be sleeping. This burns up their fat stores and causes them to starve to death since their food source (insects) is diminished during the winter. Infected bats may look emaciated, or extremely thin, and be unable to fly properly.

If you do see an infected bat, don't touch it! Instead, report it to a local conservation agency, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bats are infected during hibernation
White-nose syndrome bat

Hope on the Horizon

However, the case of white-nose syndrome is not hopeless. In fact, a cure was recently discovered through an unlikely medium: bananas! In 2011, scientists were studying a bacterium that could prevent mold growth in bananas. The bacterium was then applied to Pd and successfully stopped fungal growth. In 2015, the treatment was tested on infected bats, and the bats were cured and able to be released back into the wild!

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