Preventing Bat Illness: A Potential Solution?

Preventing Bat Illness: A Potential Solution?

Susan Cosier
Published: 03/05/2009

Little brown bats, courtesy of Al Hicks, New York Department of Conservation

Some researchers are suggesting a way to save bats from white-nose syndrome—at least temporarily. In a new study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, scientists used mathematical models to determine whether warmer caves could help decrease bat mortality from the illness, recognized by a white fungus on their noses, ears, and wings.

Heating caves “might be a way to keep the bats alive for a while until we come up with a cure or a solution,” says lead author Justin Boyles.

White-nose syndrome is a mysterious illness plaguing bats in the northeast, and is responsible for the death of as many as 500,000 bats over the last two years. Some scientists think that the fungus causes the bats to rouse from hibernation, which requires a lot of energy. The bats then burn their fat reserve and starve to death.

Boyles and his co-author, Craig Willis, tested the theory using mathematical simulations (since empirical evidence can take so long to obtain and the disease is spreading so quickly). They found that when bat populations are roused, they experience higher mortality rates. The researchers also used the model to determine if warmer roosts could reduce mortality by allowing bats to use less energy raising their body temperatures. The models showed a mortality level of a mere 8 percent.

Little brown bat, courtesy of Al Hicks, New York Department of Conservation

“From our modeling exercise, [warmer caves] will increase survival substantially, but it’s not enough to be sustainable in the long term,” says Boyles. Researchers will need to find the cause or a cure for the disease in order to save the six species affected, he says.

Bats play an important part in the ecosystem, as Rene Ebersole described in a post last year. Losing large populations of the mammal could also have significant economic effects, says Boyles. Although heating caves may not be the most conventional solution to stall the disease, “the scope of the problem is big enough that crazy ideas like this are getting a little more traction now than they would have gotten a year or two ago,” says Boyles.