A bat-killing fungus recently detected for the first time in western North America is genetically similar to strains found in the eastern United States. It did not likely originate in Eurasia, according to a study published in the journal mSphere.
That discovery will have implications for wildlife managers battling the spread of the disease white-nose syndrome in North American bats.
Results from a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service provide clues about the origin of this strain of the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus. The fungus causes white-nose syndrome and was recently found on a bat near North Bend, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection in Nebraska. Because the fungus is also present in Eurasia and North Bend is near international ports, the scientists studied DNA from the Washington fungus to determine if it had roots abroad.
“Although it remains unclear how (the fungus) reached Washington, this finding guides us to look to North America as the source,” Jonathan Sleeman, director of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, said in a news release. “Now that (the fungus) has been identified in the western U.S., it’s critical to continue working with resource managers to help conserve imperiled bat species, which are worth billions of dollars per year to North American agriculture and forestry.”
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In March, a small brown bat found sick near North Bend tested positive for the syndrome after the animal had died. Following this discovery, the wildlife health center provided DNA from the fungus on the bat’s skin to a laboratory at the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station for genetic analysis.
Scientists at the research station sequenced DNA from multiple strains of the fungus, including the fungus cultured from the Washington bat, and determined it most closely matched strains from eastern North America.
White-nose syndrome was first documented in New York in 2006 and has rapidly spread westward in North America to neighboring states and into Canada. The disease has killed millions of insect-eating bats and threatens several formerly abundant bat species with extinction, according to the news release.
Based on the current understanding of the distribution of the fungus in North America, scientists cannot determine if the fungus reached Washington from the east by bat movements or through human activities. However, ongoing surveillance efforts coordinated through the multiagency response effort continues to provide insights on the spread of WNS, the impacts of this disease on bat populations and the potential for population recovery.
“These results confirm that (the fungus) is capable of movement far across North America. They do not, however, change the importance of taking precautions to reduce the risk of spread by humans,” Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in the release. “There’s much we don’t know about how (the fungus) will affect populations of western bats, so it is critical to limit spread as much as possible until we can improve survival of susceptible bats.”
White-nosed syndrome is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.