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Winter-Spring 2012 Table of Contents

Fungus Found to Be Killer of Little Brown Bats

Government study follows work of CAS biologist Thomas Kunz

| From Commonwealth | By Rich Barlow

White-nose syndrome threatens the existence of little brown bats in the Northeast. Photo courtesy of flickr contributor Microbe World

A government study has confirmed that a fungus investigated by biologist Thomas Kunz and other researchers is the mystery killer ravaging little brown bats in North America. The study was published on October 26, 2011, the day Kunz was seriously hurt in a car accident.

Saving the ecologically vital bats has been a passion for Kunz, an internationally known researcher whose colleagues and students have dubbed him “Bat Man,” to his delight. Last March, he and other researchers published a paper calling for further research into the fungus, Geomyces destructans, which a U.S. Geological Survey study published in the journal Nature recently fingered as the source of lethal white-nose syndrome (WNS). Kate Langwig (GRS’15), a doctoral candidate at the Kunz-led BU Center for Ecology & Conservation Biology, reports that Kunz and colleagues at three other universities recently won a government grant to probe how bats’ social interactions may spread the fungus.

Biologist Thomas Kunz is recovering after being hit by a car last October. A government study has confirmed that a fungus he and other researchers have investigated is the mystery killer of little brown bats in North America. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Last year, Kunz predicted that if WNS went unchecked, it could send the bats, found throughout the continent, into extinction in the Northeast. That study and Kunz’s related research, Langwig says, “provided critical information about dynamics of a novel bat pathogen, and helped to pave the way for confirmation of Geomyces destructans” as the cause. The breakthrough might help “wildlife managers target species and populations that are most at risk of infection,” curbing WNS, she says.

Kunz is receiving treatment at a rehabilitation center outside Boston. He suffered brain injuries after he was hit by a car in Toronto, where he was attending a bat research symposium.

WNS has killed more than a million bats, which eat bugs that destroy crops and spread disease, including mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus. Named for the way it bleaches victims’ noses and other body parts, WNS causes the bats to wake early from hibernation and shed body fat at a time when their food source is in short supply, starving them to death. While Kunz’s work pointed to the fungus as the cause of the virus, it remained controversial because European bats exposed to the fungus have not been annihilated.

But after harvesting Geomyces destructans from sickened bats and then exposing hibernating lab bats to it, the results “provide the first direct evidence that G. destructans is the causal agent of WNS,” the study concludes. At the end of the trial, all treated bats were positive 
for WNS.

Kunz, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology, is a recipient of the University’s highest faculty honor, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professorship.

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