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Death in the bat caves: UC Davis experts call for action against fast-moving disease

February 2, 2011

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February 2, 2011

A team of wildlife experts led by UC Davis called today for a national fight against a new fungus that has killed more than 1 million bats in the eastern United States and is spreading fast throughout North America.

"If we lose bats, we lose keystone species in some communities, predators that consume enormous numbers of insects, and beautiful wildlife species that are important parts of North America's biodiversity," said
Janet Foley, a UC Davis professor of veterinary medicine at the Center for Vectorborne Diseases.

Foley and her co-authors' call to action appears today online in the Early View section of the journal Conservation Biology.

Bats are essential members of natural ecosystems, hunting insects, pollinating plants and scattering seeds, Foley said. "Bats do the jobs at night that birds do during the day. But because they are most active in darkness, few people are aware of how many bats live around us and how valuable they are."
(Why are bats important?)

The new fungal disease has been named "white-nose syndrome." Scientists think the fungus, which normally lives in soil, somehow traveled to cave walls where bats hibernate in winter and began infecting the animals' facial skin and wing membranes.

Sick bats appear to be coated with frost. They fly more than normal, which uses up fat reserves, and also lose water at a faster rate than normal. Disoriented, they move to exposed places, such as cave entrances. Eventually, they starve, freeze or die of dehydration.

The first infected bats were found by a cave explorer near Albany, N.Y., in February 2006. Since then, infected bats have been found northward to Ontario and Quebec in Canada, south to Tennessee and west to Oklahoma. The authors write that they expect white-nose syndrome to cross the Rocky Mountains and enter California in the next several years.

There are 23 species of bats in California that hibernate in caves, and so are vulnerable to white-nose syndrome.

Foley said the fungus does not appear to be a threat to people or animals other than bats.

The National Wildlife Health Center, a program of the U.S. Geological Survey, identified the white-nose fungus,
Geomyces destructans, in 2007.

"In the three years since its discovery, white-nose syndrome has changed the focus of bat conservation in North America," said Foley. "A national response is required, and our epidemiological roadmap is designed to help emerging state and national plans to combat white-nose syndrome across the United States."

Foley and her collaborators developed their recommendations at a workshop in Colorado in August funded by the National Park Service.

The authors' recommendations include: an outbreak investigation network that would establish a standard diagnosis and case definitions; bat population monitoring; and improved public awareness of the problem. "Scientists, policymakers and members of the public will all have a voice in the coming debate over the best course of action," Foley said. They also call for further studies of chemical and biological agents known to kill the fungus but not yet proven safe for bats, as well as study of treatments for similar diseases.

Foley's co-authors are: Deana Clifford, a research associate at the UC Davis
Wildlife Health Center and associate wildlife veterinarian at the California Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Investigations Lab in Sacramento; Kevin Castle, a wildlife veterinarian at the National Park Service's Biological Resource Management Division in Fort Collins, Colo.; Paul Cryan, a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Collins; and Richard Ostfeld, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of  Ecosystems Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. 


 •    Full text of study, "Investigating and Managing the Rapid Emergence of White Nose Syndrome, a Novel, Fatal Infectious Disease of Hibernating Bats":

•    Janet Foley:

•    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

•    Bat Conservation International:

Janet Foley, (530) 754-9740,, is an associate professor and vector-borne disease epidemiologist based in the Department of Veterinary Medicine and Epidemiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine. She studies vectorborne disease epidemiology in people, dogs, cats horses and wildlife. She develops models of infectious diseases--Lyme disease, plague, rabies and tick-borne anaplasmosis--particularly their emergence and persistence in nature. 

About the Journal: Conservation Biology is published on behalf of the Society for Conservation Biology and is the most influential and frequently cited journal in its field. The journal publishes groundbreaking papers and is instrumental in defining the key issues contributing to the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biological diversity.

About UC Davis: For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has more than 32,000 students, more than 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget that exceeds $678 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools--Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.