Scientists from the state Health Department will search for a fungus-killing fungus with about $80,000 in federal grant money, part of a $1.4 million effort announced this week to fight the bat-killing White Nose Syndrome.
And, for the first time since the deadly disease was discovered in a Schoharie County cave six years ago, there are some indications bats are having some success battling their extinction.
White Nose Syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces, killing an estimated 5.5 million bats, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scientists believe the fungus, called Geomyces destructans, is causing bats to lose their reserves during hibernation, forcing many to leave their caves early in a fruitless search for food in the winter.
USFWS biologist Jeremy Coleman on Friday said little brown bats — among the species first found to be dying by the hundreds in Schoharie County caves — might be on the rebound in those same caves.
Coleman said it’s too early to tell why little brown bat numbers doubled over the winter season from as few as 300 to as many as 600.
“In two of the initial five sites in Schoharie County, actually, their numbers went up this year,” Coleman said, but he cautioned against any celebrations.
“We don’t understand what that means,” Coleman said.
Coleman said reproduction couldn’t explain the increase, as bats only have one or two young.
It’s possible the bat counts that began after the 2006 discovery of the disease were inaccurate and bats were hibernating so deep in caves scientists couldn’t find them, he said.
But an effort to fit bats with bands in Fort Drum near Watertown over the past three years does show some bats are surviving over the winter despite being affected by the White Nose Syndrome fungus
Some of the bats have obvious signs of exposure, like scarring.
“We do have some individuals there that appear to be surviving. We do have some evidence that this is happening, so it is good news,” Coleman said.
Whether these bats are reproducing or have developed some way to battle the disease is unclear, he said.
Even if they are, it’s not yet certain the bat populations can overcome the losses they’ve sustained in a half-dozen years.
“We could be seeing what is known in ecology as functional extinction where the bats are there, and are persisting, but they are so depleted that they’re not ever going to be able to recover and will ultimately disappear,” Coleman said.
The disease has affected little brown bats so much that Coleman said people lucky enough to see bats at dusk are likely seeing another kind — the big brown bats.
“Those are hardier,” he said.
The USFWS on Friday announced $1.4 million will go to seven different studies proposed by scientists at colleges and agencies from New York to California.
A study planned by scientists from the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center laboratory is among the seven to receive part of the money.
Coleman said pharmaceutical remedies — like the ones that kill the athlete’s foot fungus — aren’t practical, so the agency is funding studies that might reveal an environmentally sound way to fight the disease.
That’s where Vishnu Chaturvedi, Ph.D, and his team of scientists comes in.
Chaturvedi specializes in mycotic and parasitic diseases and directs a team at the Mycology Laboratory at the Wadsworth Center.
The team over the past two years worked to identify a large number of compounds that kill the fungus. Now the research is taking a different approach.
Chaturvedi said other forms of fungi are used regularly in the fields of agriculture and horticulture to fight plant diseases. The plan is to study whether there are fungi in caves and mines where the White Nose Syndrome fungus is less prevalent or nonexistent.
It’s possible that there are fungi that have some way of eliminating the White Nose Syndrome fungus.
“We are trying to find a fungi that could be used to control geomyces,” he said.
“Eventually we want to free them … so if the bats were to return, that there will be no environmental source of this pathogen for infection of new bats,” Chaturvedi said.
There are too many risks and challenges involved in trying to kill the White Nose Syndrome fungus using chemical treatments, including the logistical challenge involved in crawling deep into caves to treat bats and their surroundings, he said.
The risk of environmental damage is also too great to jump into treatment projects, Chaturvedi said.
“You can cause a lot of unintended damage. You would not only be killing the target fungus, you would also be killing all the other fungus, so essentially you would be destroying the other flora and other microbes” that are beneficial, he said.
The idea is sound, but Chaturvedi said it’s a scientific theory at this point.
“Now comes the hard part, which is to test the hypothesis,” he said.
The Wadsworth Center got involved in the White Nose Syndrome battle because of its specialization in the field of pathogens — the White Nose Syndrome fungus is closely related to pathogens that affect people, Chaturvedi said.
And, the loss of bug-eating bats heightens the risk of growing populations of insects that cause disease in humans.
Chaturvedi said he’s been reading with dismay about the disappearance of some species of frogs in North America and about colony collapse disorder in bees.
But he never imagined he’d be involved in a fight to save an entire species from extinction.
“I think it’s very sad. It is here and since we have the expertise we are grateful to be able to contribute to the effort,” Chaturvedi said.