Image credit: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region/Flickr
No one likes to have their sleep disturbed but for hibernating bats it can actually be deadly. Geomyces destructans is caused by a white fungus that irritates infected bats' skin, rousing them from their slumber and causing them to expend precious reserves of energy—often leading to starvation.
Since first being discovered in Northern New York, the syndrome has spread west. Now, an outbreak in caves in Oklahoma have experts worried it is poised to spread across the hemisphere.
The race is on to find a way to stop white-nose syndrome before it completely decimates North American bat populations. Image credit: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region/Flickr
In Oklahoma, the little brown bats share their caves with bats from Mexico. Later, these bats migrate as far south as Argentina, meaning an outbreak here has the potential to spread across the hemisphere.
DeeAnn Reeder, a biologist at Bucknell University, commented:
I'm afraid of what next year's map is going to look like...it got farther than I expected this year.
While it is known that infected bats wake from hibernation more frequently—once every four days as compared to the once every two weeks of healthy bats—researchers are not precisely sure how bats go from infected to dead.
Lacking this understanding, biologists are unable to develop a means of protecting bats from infection.
Until then, the main hope is that the epidemic will be limited by a climate barrier—a line where the winters become too cold for the fungus to proliferate.
Meanwhile, in Europe, bats mysteriously appear to be immune to the fungus. Some believe that an epidemic of Geomyces destructans has already passed through the continent—meaning any bat that has survived has some special trait allowing it to survive.
At the moment, however, this remains a small consolation for bats in Oklahoma as they struggle to survive.