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Bat killer cause confirmed as fungus

Bat killer cause confirmed as fungus

Virgina big-eared batBig-eared bats appear to be immune to white-nose syndrome, for reasons that are not clear

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White-nose syndrome (WNS), the disease rampaging its way through the bats of North America, is caused by a fungus, scientists have confirmed.

Researchers from a number of US institutions infected healthy bats with the fungus Geomyces destructans, and found they did develop the disease.

The team also showed that the fungus can pass from one bat to another.

Writing in the journal Nature, they say WNS “has the potential to decimate North American bat populations”.

So far, the disease has killed more than a million bats in the eastern US and Canada since it was first identified in New York state in 2006.

G. destructans is usually found on the animals’ snouts, where it causes a characteristic white colouration and, more significantly, lesions in the skin.

Although the fungus has been suspected as the disease’s primary cause, researchers have not been able to prove it definitively.

Animals sometimes contract fungal diseases when their immune systems have been compromised, perhaps by a different infection, and this has been seen as a possibility for WNS as well.

The research group, led by David Blehert from the National Wildlife Health Center at the US Geological Survey, appears to have proven the primary role of the fungus.

No ‘magic bullet’

G. destructans micrographA micrograph of G. destructans shows its branches and conidia (spores)

First, they took little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) that were fit and healthy, and infected them with G. destructans from culture.

Three months after infection, all showed lesions characteristic of WNS.

To determine how the fungus could be transferred from one bat to another, the researchers set up two different experiments.

In one, infected bats could mingle with healthy ones. Nearly 90% of the healthy ones had contracted fungal infection three months on.

In the wild, bats appear to transmit the fungus when they “swarm” in vast groups outside the caves where they will hibernate, literally rubbing shoulders and everything else with their fellows, who may be from a different species or a different cave.

In the other experiment, healthy bats and diseased ones were put in neighbouring cages separated by 1.3cm.

Here, the fungus did not spread, indicating that infectious spores are not airborne.

The researchers hope that confirming the disease’s cause will enable agencies to concentrate on ways to halt its advance.

White-nose syndrome

Little brown bat displaying symptoms of WNS (Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation)
  • WNS is associated with a fungus known asGeomyces destructans – and the new research confirms it as the cause
  • Once present in a colony, WNS can wipe out the entire population
  • It was first reported in a cave in New York in February 2006
  • The most common visible symptom of an infected bat is a white fungus on the animal’s nose, but it can also appear on its wings, ears or tail
  • Other symptoms include weight loss and abnormal behaviour, such as flying in daylight or sub-zero temperatures
  • Species known to be vulnerable to WNS include: tri-coloured, little brown, big brown, northern long-eared, small-footed and Indiana bats
  • There is no known risk to human health

(Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

“There’s unlikely to be any ‘magic bullet’ that we could deploy to block the disease – diseases among free-ranging wildlife are not usually stopped in their tracks when they’re established,” Dr Blehert told BBC News.

But measures could be adopted to reduce transmission by humans, he said, by closing caves and insisting on decontamination when people do go into hibernation sites.

This would probably not stop the disease spreading between neighbouring bat populations that will normally intermingle.

But it could stop people inadvertently taking spores from one side of the continent to another, or even to other continents.

It is generally believed that WNS came to the US this way from Europe, where bats appear to be immune.

Another approach might be to change the environment of the cave subtly, so as to slow the fungal spread while leaving it habitable for bats and other wildlife.

G. destructans appears to like low temperatures and certain levels of humidity; so altering those parameters could retard its growth.

Meanwhile, research goes on into how the fungus actually kills the animals.

“It might be called white-nose syndrome, but when you look closely the most significant damage perhaps is to the wings,” said Dr Blehert.

“These are exquisite organs, external structures made entirely of skin, comprising eight times more skin than is on the rest of the body.

“They play a role in water balance when the bats are hibernating, blood pressure regulation, even passive CO2 exchange with the atmosphere – so if the wings are heavily damaged by the fungus, that might explain its lethality.”

Following frogs

The advance of WNS across North America in some ways parallels the spread of chytridiomycosis, the frequently lethal fungal disease affecting amphibians.

As with chytrid, some species of bat appear immune, or at least resistant. In North America, these include the gray bat and the spectacular Virginia big-eared bat.

Scientists want to understand why they are immune when others such as the little brown bat succumb; and, as is being investigated with chytrid, to see whether this natural immunity can be turned into a defence for vulnerable species.

Chytridiomycosis has wiped many amphibian populations and quite a few entire species off the map; and this research group warns of similar troubles ahead for bats unless WNS is tackled.

“Fungal pathogens have the unique capacity to drive host populations to extinction because of their ability to survive in host-free environments,” they write.

“Given the high mortality rate and speed at which WNS has spread, the disease has the potential to decimate North American bat populations and cause species extinctions similar to those documented for amphibians affected by chytridiomycosis.”

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Descent into darkness: Biologist Carl Herzog heads into an abandoned mine to assess the damage of the killer disease

Javan rhino ‘now extinct in Vietnam’

Javan rhino ‘now extinct in Vietnam’

A Javan rhino is captured on camera in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park (Image: WWF Greater Mekong)Genetic analysis of rhino dung samples revealed that there was only one individual left in Vietnam

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critically endangered species of rhino is now extinct in Vietnam, according to a report by conservation groups.

The WWF and the International Rhino Foundation said the country’s last Javan rhino was probably killed by poachers, as its horn had been cut off.

Experts said the news was not a surprise, as only one sighting had been recorded in Vietnam since 2008.

Fewer than 50 individuals are now estimated to remain in the wild.

“It is painful that despite significant investment in Vietnamese rhino conservation, efforts failed to save this unique animal, ” said WWF’s Vietnam director Tran Thi Minh Hien.

“Vietnam has lost part of its natural heritage.”

The authors of the report, Extinction of the Javan Rhino from Vietnam, said genetic analysis of dung samples collected between 2009-2010 in the Cat Tien National Park showed that they all belonged to just one individual.

Shortly after the survey was completed, conservationists found out that the rhino had been killed. They say it was likely to have been the work of poachers because it had been shot in a leg and its horn had been cut off.

Globally, there has been a sharp increase in the number of rhino poaching cases. Earlier this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a report that said rhino populations in Africa were facing their worst poaching crisis for decades.

An assessment carried out by Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, said the surge in the illegal trade in rhino horns was being driven by demands from Asian medicinal markets.

Conservation blow

The Vietnam rhino, as well as being the last of the species on mainland Asia, was also the last known surviving member of the Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus subspecies – one of three recognised groups of Javan rhino populations.

In detail: Javan rhinoceros

  • Scientific name: Rhinoceros sondaicus
  • The species is listed as Critically Endangered because fewer than 50 individuals remain
  • Weight: 900kg – 2,300kg
  • Height: 1.5m – 1.7m
  • Length: 2.0m – 4.0m
  • Male Javan rhinos possess a single horn about 25cm long
  • It is estimated that they can live for 30-40 years
  • Females reach sexual maturity between 5-7 years, and then give birth to a calf about once every three years

(Source: IUCN/IRF)

Another is already extinct. R. sondaicus inermiswas formerly found in north-eastern India, Bangladesh and Burma.

The remaining subspecies, R. sondaicus sondaicus, is now found on Java, Indonesia. However, since the 1930s, the animals – now estimated to number no more than 50 – have been restricted to the westernmost parts of the island.

Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, chairman of the IUCN’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group, said the demise of the Javan rhino in Vietnam was “definitely a blow”.

“We all must learn from this and need to ensure that the fate of the Javan rhino in [Indonesia] won’t be like that of Cat Tien in near future,” he told BBC News.

“Threats to rhinos for their horn is definitely a major problem. But in Indonesia, due to active work done by rhino protection units and national park authorities, no Javan rhino poaching has been recorded in Indonesia for past decade.”

Dr Talukdar observed: “What is key to the success of the species is appropriate habitat management as the Javan rhinos are browser and it needs secondary growing forests.”

He warned that the habitat within the national park on Java serving as the final refuge for the species was being degraded by an invasive species of palm.

“As such, control of arenga palm and habitat management for Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon National Park is now become important for future of the species.”