for National Geographic News
Scientists have pinpointed the fungus linked to white-nose syndrome, the mysterious ailment that has wiped out large populations of bats in the northeastern United States.
The fungus, found on the wings, ears, and muzzles of infected bats, is a member of the Geomyces genus.
"It's a cold-loving fungus known to be associated with Arctic permafrost soils," said study co-author David Blehert, a microbiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
Northeastern U.S. caves maintain year-round temperatures between 35 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit (2 and 15 degrees Celsius)—well within the fungus's reproductive range.
Since the winter of 2006 to 2007, white-nose syndrome has caused 80- to 97-percent-mortality rates in some large hibernation colonies, putting some species at serious risk.
The situation has experts worried, since a single bat can eat more than its body weight in bugs each night, aiding the fight against crop damage and disease.
Why Do They Die?
Scientists don't yet know if the fungus is actually causing the bats to die.
The organism doesn't look like other known Geomyces, despite its close genetic relationship.
"In one sense it looks like it could have been a [recently] introduced fungus that's spreading," Blehert said.
On the other hand, it may simply be one of the many fungi species that scientists hadn't noticed because it had no obvious impact on bats.
"Bats have evolved to live in cool, dank environments just loaded with fungi, and this problem hasn't been reported before. They must have some mechanism that prevents them from getting moldy when hibernating," he said.
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