Between 5 million and 7 million bats of various species have died from the disease since that year. In Pennsylvania alone, 95 percent of little brown bats have died.
Bats have an ugly reputation as villains in books and movies, but in reality are as important as birds and bees. They pollinate plants, and a single reproductive female consumes her weight in bugs each night. A colony of 150 brown bats can eat enough adult cucumber beetles to prevent the laying of eggs that results in 33 million rootworm larvae in summer, according to a study cited by Bat Conservation International.
A 2009 study estimated that 1,320 metric tons of insect pests were not eaten because of the decline in bat numbers, requiring farmers to buy and apply more pesticides.
Meteyer started studying diseased bats in Madison when they first flew out of caves with white-nose and plopped into the yards of homeowners. Dead bats were boxed and shipped to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for study.
They soon ended up in the brightly lit Necropsy Suite at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, where Meteyer walked through two vacuum-sealed air locks, slipped on a gown, mask and surgical gloves and dissected them with razor-sharp cutting tools.
“It’s like [the television show] “Quincy” and some of the “CSI” programs where we’re taking samples to find out what’s going on, if it puts people at risk, if it’s new and emerging,” she said.
Scientists at the lab have studied the bird flu and other diseases so deadly that carcasses and are tossed down a drain “into an intense pressure cooker” so that they are instantly denatured and any virus is killed “before it goes anywhere,” Meteyer said. The air is also filtered before it leaves the building.
Meteyer has looked at more than 500 bats. At first, she checked to verify that the disease rabies was not throwing off their coordination and causing them to tear themselves apart.
Peering deeper, she noticed that their white blood cells tried to wall off the fungus. In February 2011, she read about fungal infections in animals and made the connection to IRIS while reading AIDS research that summer.
Unknown to Meteyer, Mandl had a similar revelation across the country at NIH in Bethesda. Mandl was tracking cells that disappear when the immune system is depressed, trying to figure out where they go.
Mandl recalled reading about how immune systems go into a sleep mode as animals hibernate, which led her to bats. She e-mailed one of Meteyer’s colleagues, and soon the researchers were communicating by phone and in cyberspace.
They have written several papers about bats and disease but have not met yet. They are hoping for grants to support more research that might help bats and humans.
“You have a system set up for catastrophe,” Meteyer said, a mad army of white blood cells massed for a lethal attack. What triggers it? “They have no idea how to recognize a fungus without a chemical signal. What is the signal?”
Source: Washington Post