Bats are generally considered to have hardy immune systems.
"Is there something that's been perturbing the bats' immune systems?" Blehert asked.
Other pathogens or diet deficiencies—perhaps pesticide-driven—could make bats newly susceptible to even familiar fungi, scientists say.
Now that the white-nose fungus has been identified, its possible role in killing the small mammals may soon become clear.
Blehert's team will run trials to see if the fungus alone can cause the syndrome in otherwise healthy bats.
Identifying the problem represents progress toward a solution, but easy fixes may be elusive, added study co-author Al Hicks, a bat expert with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We all hope it isn't [just] the fungus," he said. "I don't believe the fungus is something that we can address very easily."
(Related: "Amphibian Bacteria Fights Off Deadly Fungus, Study Says" [May 29, 2007].)
Emaciated and Starving
John Hermanson, of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said the fungus could prove physically devastating even if it's not highly toxic.
For one, infected bats are emaciated, dehydrated, and starving, conditions that interrupt their winter hibernation cycles. The animals also likely have only enough fat reserves to survive hibernation.
"After a bad night's sleep we feel pretty bad," said Hermanson, who was not involved in the research.
"Imagine if you were supposed to sleep for four-and-a-half months" and kept having to wake up, he said.
"If they are waking up almost daily because of [the effects of the fungus], that could really be the cause of major problems."
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