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Bats that warm up together in hibernation could be fighting white-nose syndrome

Paul Cryan
A little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) with white-nose syndrome hibernating in a Virginia cave during late spring of 2016.

White-nose syndrome is killing millions of bats in 31 states including Michigan, and five Canadian provinces. It’s a disease caused by a fungus.

But clusters of bats that warm up together during hibernation might have an edge against the fungus. Researchers discovered this by putting temperature-sensing surveillance cameras in caves.

Paul Cryan is a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He and his team studied Indiana bats and little brown bats.

“Both species are affected by white-nose syndrome, and both species we thought hibernated in the same way, but in spots where white-nose syndrome had struck the Indiana bats, at the site we monitored, they were warming up together as a group every night during the winters we monitored them in that cave,” he says.

Bats that have white-nose syndrome rouse more frequently during hibernation. They can burn through their fat reserves more quickly, and Cryan says they can then die as a result.

Cryan says the Indiana bats that roused from hibernation every night as a group might have an advantage against the disease.

“We speculate that this warming up together may be a way the bats actually fight back the fungal infection. Because the fungus is cold-growing, and it only grows when their bodies are cold, it’s possible that because these bats warm up together, they save energy... and fight back the fungus by warming up to a temperature periodically that the fungus doesn't do so well inside their body," he says.

Cryan says although there’s still a lot to learn about how different bat species deal with white-nose syndrome, these new findings could reveal a way to help vulnerable populations.

“There’s hope that the bats have the capacity to deal with fungal infection and maybe mitigate the effects of the disease, the fungal infection, as it spreads across the continent about halfway now. But there’s also clear evidence that certain species of bats may need our help more than others,” he says.

You can listen to the interview with Paul Cryan above.

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