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Scientists turn to China for clues about a disease killing bats in our region

White-nose syndrome is killing millions of bats in 27 states and five Canadian provinces. It’s a disease caused by a fungus.

Five of Michigan’s nine bat species can get the disease. The bats that hibernate underground are the ones at risk. And the northern long-eared bat is getting hit especially hard.

Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz are studying bats in China that appear to be resistant to the fungus. 

Looking to China for answers

“We’re looking at bats in China to really understand what the long-term dynamics might look like for bats in North America as this disease kind of plays out,” Joseph Hoyt says.

Hoyt is one of the study’s lead authors. He and his team studied bats at five sites in China and five sites in the midwestern U.S.

Credit Flickr user U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region/Flickr
Hibernating bats with white-nose syndrome. The fungus wakes bats up more often than normal throughout hibernation. As a result, they run out of fat too soon.

They found that bats in China are more resistant to the fungus than are bats in parts of North America.

“Which just means that they’re actually able to reduce the disease severity,” Hoyt says. “And so we’re actually seeing significantly lower amounts of fungus on the bats in China than we do see in areas of North America, where the disease is just first invading.”

White-nose syndrome has been affecting bats in the U.S. for about a decade now, but bats in Asia and Europe have been dealing with the fungus for a lot longer.

“It’s not exactly known how long bats in Europe and Asia have coexisted with the disease, but some more recent evidence suggest at least on the order of thousands of years,” Hoyt says. “But it could be definitely much longer than that.”

The study has not uncovered anything in China that could control the fungus here, Hoyt says. But the research could help scientists understand whether or not our bats will evolve a resistance to the fungus, as they have in China.

Hoyt says that understanding could help scientists determine an appropriate way to control the fungus in North America.

Some species have a leg up

Different bat species cope with this disease in different ways.

“Even within North America, we see quite a bit of variation,” Hoyt says.

He says the big brown bat, for instance, might already have some resistance to the fungus.

“They haven’t really experienced the same population level collapses as some of the other species,” he says.

Lower amounts of the fungus have been found on big brown bats as compared to others.

The northern long eared bat isn't so lucky.

That species is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Hoyt says northern long eared bats are undergoing “uniformly high declines” in mines and caves that've been studied.

Searching for a “slam dunk” solution

But how close are we to finding something that could help the bats on a large scale?

Hoyt says researchers are trying to find ways to fight the fungus by doing small-scale field trials. So far, he says they haven’t found any “slam dunks.”

Still, he thinks researchers are making progress.

“Hopefully in the next year to two years we’ll kind of be, you know, moving beyond that stage and hopefully have something — some kind of tool that we can actually use in the field to reduce the impacts of this disease,” he says.

To find out what to do around your house to help bats out, check out this article.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.