Madison Researchers Unravel Bat Die-Off Mystery

In the nation’s Northeast, millions of brown bats are dying off.

It’s estimated that the bat population there has declined by 80 percent since 2007, but a breakthrough discovery at a Madison lab could help researchers understand why and battle back against the disease causing the deaths.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center have determined that a fungus — one that shows up microscopically in magenta, spaghetti-like strands — is the cause of White Nose Syndrome.

“Our primary target are their wing membranes,” said Carole Meteyer, a wildlife pathologist. “It ends up being a little bit like bread mold … when that surface of the wing membrane is eroded, then that underlying tissue is raw and exposed to the environment, and dehydration can occur, loss of body heat.”

Meteyer and microbiologist David Blehert are racing to stop White Nose Syndrome from spreading.

“Bats don’t pick themselves up and go to the doctor,” he said. “We don’t take bats to the veterinarian.”

It’s one reason why it’s a challenge to stop the fungus from entering the caves where bats live.

“Even if we could go into the cave and use anti-fungal drugs to treat individual animals, that is a strategy that requires continuous intervention by humans,” Blehert said.

The fungus has not arrived in Wisconsin yet, but has made it to Indiana.

As its research continues, the team is hoping to find a solution that may just be the salvation for the critical creatures.

“We may be able to develop means by which we could manipulate in subtle ways, cave environments, to reduce the severity of the disease,” he said.

Bats eat mosquitoes, moths and other agricultural pests, which studies suggest save the agricultural industry $5 billion in additional chemical pesticides each year. Bats also pollinate the agave plant, which is essential in the production of tequila — proving there’s many reasons why it’s essential scientists find a way to control the die-off, before White Nose Syndrome spreads further.