(Photo by Matt Grotto)
A new vaccine has shown promise in helping bats in the wild survive white-nose syndrome, a fungal illness that has killed millions of bats in the United States.
White-nose syndrome causes a white fungus to grow on the muzzles and wings of bats while they are hibernating. The fungus causes the bats to wake up from hibernation and fly around, expending energy they need to survive the winter, according to the National Park Service. Bats afflicted with white-nose syndrome can die of starvation because they use up the fat reserves that were stored to help them survive hibernation.
The disease was first identified in 2006 in New York. Since the winter of 2007-2008, millions of bats in 33 states and seven Canadian provinces have died of white-nose syndrome, according to the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.
Researchers from the National Wildlife Health Center recently published the results of a study that showed an oral vaccine could help more bats survive the devastating effects of the disease. In the study conducted on captured little brown bats, the vaccinated bats developed fewer lesions and more bats survived the disease.
The researchers created two vaccines to combat the fungus by implanting raccoon poxviruses with DNA instructions to make one of two fungal proteins, which cause the bats' immune system to recognize the fungus and fight it. Of the 10 wild bats given a combination of the two vaccines, one developed lesions in the span of the 100-day hibernation period. In the group of 23 bats not given the vaccines, 14 bats, or 61 percent, developed lesions.
The research team conducted a second trial in an attempt to confirm the results of the first, this time vaccinating the bats both orally and via injection. In that trial, after 126 days, 88 percent of the bats orally vaccinated and 80 percent of the bats injected with vaccine survived the fungus' effects, while only 30 percent of the unvaccinated bats did.
The researchers believe slowing the growth of the fungus or limiting the intensity of the infections helps the bats sleep more peacefully during hibernation and in turn better maintain their body weight and energy.
Dr. Elizabeth Falendysz, a veterinarian at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center who was on the research team, told ScienceNews that they hope to create a vaccine spray that the bats could lick from their fur and spread among bat colonies as they nuzzle other bats, a practice that has been successful in a rabies vaccine in lab tests conducted on big brown bats.
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White-nose syndrome only affects species of bats that hibernate. So far, the disease has been identified in seven bat species: the little brown bat, big brown bat, tri-colored bat, northern bat and eastern small-footed bat as well as two endangered bats, the Indiana bat and gray bat, according to Bat Conservation International.
The illness was first identified in Illinois in 2013, and it has now been documented in nearly all counties across the state that are home to bats that hibernate, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey.
The condition is significant ecologically because bats play an important role in the environment by consuming huge quantities of insects, many of which are agricultural pests. A single bat can eat between 600 and 1,000 insects an hour, according to the National Park Service. Without bats, insect populations would boom, which could threaten our economy, cause crop damage and increase human illness.
Bats are also pollinators. According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination.
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