Bats are fly, here’s why: CSU researchers study disease killing millions of bats in U.S.

Jessie Trudell

Researchers at Colorado State University believe that bats play an invaluable role in our ecosystems — a role that is being seriously threatened. Colleen Webb, a professor in the Department of Biology, described the detrimental effects of white-nose syndrome, an emerging fungal disease killing millions of bats in the eastern United States.

Colleen Webb, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology, reflects on the findings of her recent bat research. (Photo credit: _.)
Colleen Webb, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology, reflects on the findings of her recent bat research. (Photo credit: Caio Pereira.)

“Bats are estimated to have a positive economic impact in the billions of dollars,” Webb said. “Bats can be pollinators, and most of the bats in North America are insectivorous, so they provide a huge amount of pest control agriculturally.”

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White-nose syndrome has been found among bat populations in 26 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces.

“Once an environmental agent like a fungus infects a habitat, it’s there for a while,” Webb said. “It’s hard to disinfect an entire cave.”

Webb speculates that white-nose syndrome likely spread to North America from Europe. However, European bats suffering from white-nose syndrome do not have the exceedingly high mortality rates seen in North American bats with the disease.

“Temperatures, environments and perhaps bat body sizes are slightly different in the U.S. than in Europe,” Webb said. “It’s the same strain of disease, but it’s possible that bats in Europe have some sort of resistance that U.S. bats just don’t.”

Webb said that a number of methods have been attempted to try and halt the spread of white-nose syndrome. She also mentioned that white-nose syndrome does not appear in other cave inhabitants, such as rodents.

“White-nose syndrome only presents in bats,” Webb said. “It’s incredibly hard to implement treatment on bats because they’re hard to work with and bats like to fly away.”

Bats are unique in their ability to develop white-nose syndrome, as well as in their potential to carry zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases can be passed between animals and humans.

“There’s been this idea that bats are special in some way because they are such good hosts for zoonotic diseases,” Webb said. “Bats have been identified as the reservoir for many diseases that show up in humans such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Nipah virus and Ebola.”

According to Webb, there is also some evidence that bats have slightly different immune system function and metabolic functions than other mammals, and this may contribute to their serving as good hosts for zoonotic diseases.

“Bats go through really interesting metabolic changes during flight,” Webb said. “These changes are similar to fever, and can change the way they interact with pathogens.”

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Webb said that bats have immense control over regulating their metabolisms and are warm-blooded, with the ability to match their body temperature to the air temperature around them.

“Bats need a lot of fat to survive winter hibernation,” Webb said. “They’ll pick temperature and humidity ranges that will help them survive cold winters, but unfortunately, these environments are also optimal for the growth of the fungus in white-nose syndrome.”

Further research continues to be done globally to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome. Companies such as Bacardi, which features a bat logo on all of its products, have joined Bat Conservation International in an attempt to raise awareness regarding the importance of bat populations.

“CSU students are at a University that is really highly regarded in disease ecology research, which is really cool,” Webb said. “Like bats.”

Collegian Reporter Jessie Trudell can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @JessieTrudell.