Warming Caves Could Curtail 'Bat Plague'

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In the northeastern United States, a deadly fungus is killing bats. Known as white nose syndrome, the mysterious infection was discovered just four years ago, and yet it is already threatening regional bat populations with extinction. The vast majority of bats that get white nose syndrome do not survive. There is no cure.

But there may be hope. According to a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (and written up over at Wild Muse) providing warm refuges within caves could slash the number of bats dying by up to 75 percent.

Bats are crucially important animals, both to local ecosystems and to people — they eat insect pests and help pollinate crops. In the short time since its discovery, white nose syndrome is thought to have claimed over a million bats, affected nine species, and spread from the northeastern U.S. into southeastern Canada, and as far west as Missouri.

It strikes in winter. While bats hibernate, the cold-loving fungus grows on the animals' skin, irritating them and waking them from their torpor. This results in a huge energy cost to the bats, who have to warm their bodies from a few degrees above freezing to full operating temperature in the high nineties.

The more the bats are awakened during the winter, the more precious fat reserves are burned. Many of the bodies researchers find on cave floors are emaciated and thin.

In a computer simulation, Justin Boyles of Indiana State University and Craig Willis of the University of Winnipeg modeled what would happen if pockets of warmth were placed inside caves. When these toasty refuges were tuned to around 82 degrees Fahrenheit, the team found that bats expended far less energy while awake, and could safely return to chillier corners of their caves to hibernate when the irritation had passed.

Interestingly, this remedy has been proposed before, though it's never been tested in a bat cave. It wouldn't be a cure, but if it does turn out to work, it could be a stop gap measure to buy bats some precious time while researchers works towards a more lasting remedy.

Image: Nancy Heaslip, NY Department of Environmental Conservation/USGS

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