Scientists scramble for Halloween’s iconic at-risk species

Federal agencies and their allies are stepping up the fight against a scary and, yes, complex disease that is decimating bat populations.

This Halloween month, the Fish and Wildlife Service is offering grants worth between $50,000 and $300,000 to scientists researching what the agency calls “biotech tools” that could combat white-nose syndrome.

In total, FWS will provide $1.5 million in this latest round of grant funding, which comes at a seemingly opportune time.

“In short, I would describe the current state of WNS research as promising,” Jeremy Coleman, the agency’s national coordinator for white-nose syndrome, told E&E News today, noting that “there are several different tools in field trials now in multiple countries. “

Those potential tools, Coleman added, include vaccines, probiotics, microclimate manipulation and ultraviolet light, while the new funding could “advance the development of biotech tools targeting the fungus for more permanent solutions.”

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation last week announced $478,000 in grants to address the disease and promote bat survival.

“White-nose syndrome is a challenge that requires new and innovative strategies to improve the survival and recovery of North American bat species,” said Jeff Trandal, executive director and CEO of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

It is caused by a soil fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructanswhite-nose syndrome was discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-2007. It has since been responsible for the deaths of millions of bats (Greenwire17 July 2017).

The fungus invades the skin of bats. The infection causes the bats to wake up more — and for longer periods of time — during hibernation and eventually deplete the fat stores they need to survive the winter.

Underscoring the dangers, the FWS last March proposed that the northern long-eared bat needs increased federal protection as an endangered species. The move recognizes the deteriorating condition of the bat, which was designated as an endangered species in 2015.

A lawsuit filed by environmentalists subsequently forced the federal agency to review the species’ status (Greenwire1 April 2015).

“White-nose syndrome is decimating northern long-eared bats at an unprecedented rate, as indicated by this science-based finding,” FWS Regional Director Charlie Woolley said in a statement earlier this year.

“There is no known mitigation or treatment strategy to slow the spread [the fungus] or to treat WNS in bats,” the FWS said, adding that white-nose syndrome has “caused an estimated population decline of 97-100 percent in northern long-eared bats in 79 percent of the species’ range.”

As of August, white-nose syndrome has been confirmed or suspected in bats in 39 states and eight Canadian provinces. Evidence of the fungus, called Pd for short, was found in at least four additional states without signs of the disease.

New grants awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Bats for the Future will fund efforts at Southern Illinois University to study how the Pd fungus invades host bat tissues. Another grant to Michigan Tech University will test two methods of creating lower temperatures in bat hibernacula — the places where they hang out — to slow the growth of fungus.

A third grant to Bat Conservation International will develop a new tool designed to target and disable key cellular functions in the sponge.

The Bats for the Future Fund is a partnership of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, FWS, Bureau of Land Management, Avangrid Foundation and Southern Co.

Another angle is being pursued in Montana, where ultrasonic microphones are placed atop 10-foot poles to record echolocating bats from sunset to sunrise. High-frequency recordings are used to identify bat species.

Scientists at the US Geological Survey’s Northern Rockies Science Center are working with colleagues from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to analyze acoustic data and assess the impact of white-nose syndrome on Montana’s bat populations.

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