Bats in China Are Resistant to White-Nose Syndrome Fungus

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Bats in China are resistant to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, a condition that has decimated bat populations in North America for a decade.

In a study just published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) sampled bats across five hibernation locations in northeastern China and five such sites in the midwestern United States, ensuring that the latitudes and climates were similar.

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“Uniformly, across all the species we sampled in China, we found much lower levels of infection,” said the study’s lead author, UCSC graduate student Joseph Hoyt, in a press release. “Both the fraction of bats infected and the amount of fungus on infected bats were lower than in North America.”

Bats in Asia and Europe are no strangers to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, as it’s endemic to both regions. Meanwhile, the illness only started showing up in North American bats in 2006.

The different circumstances could prove useful.

“This is the first study to compare disease dynamics in an endemic region and a region where the pathogen is invading,” said Hoyt, “and the results can help us understand the course it might take in North America.”

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White-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 6 million bats in North America. It comes courtesy of the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans and infects the muzzle, ears, and wings of bats in hibernation.

The scientists held out hope that North American bats might one day develop a resistance, citing a varied intensity of infection in some species, such as the little brown bat. The team found it had a much higher overall white-nose syndrome infection rate did than the Asian bats, but some individual little brown bats had relatively low fungal loads.

If it turns out that the variation comes from genetic differences between the little brown bats, then resistance in the species may evolve, the UCSC team suggested.

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The researchers don’t know yet how the Asian bats are becoming resistant.

“It doesn’t have to be the same strategy for every species,” said study co-author Kate Langwig, at UCSC for the study and now a Harvard postdoctoral researcher. “It could be differences in the skin microbiome in one and hibernation behavior in another. But we just don’t have those details yet.”

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