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Bats in China Are Resistant to White-Nose Syndrome Fungus

The finding could help researchers fight a condition that has decimated bat populations in North America for a decade.

Bats in China are resistant to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, a condition that has decimated bat populations in North America for a decade.

In a study just published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) sampled bats across five hibernation locations in northeastern China and five such sites in the midwestern United States, ensuring that the latitudes and climates were similar.

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"Uniformly, across all the species we sampled in China, we found much lower levels of infection," said the study's lead author, UCSC graduate student Joseph Hoyt, in a press release. "Both the fraction of bats infected and the amount of fungus on infected bats were lower than in North America."

Bats in Asia and Europe are no strangers to the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, as it's endemic to both regions. Meanwhile, the illness only started showing up in North American bats in 2006.

The different circumstances could prove useful.

"This is the first study to compare disease dynamics in an endemic region and a region where the pathogen is invading," said Hoyt, "and the results can help us understand the course it might take in North America."

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White-nose syndrome has killed an estimated 6 million bats in North America. It comes courtesy of the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans and infects the muzzle, ears, and wings of bats in hibernation.

The scientists held out hope that North American bats might one day develop a resistance, citing a varied intensity of infection in some species, such as the little brown bat. The team found it had a much higher overall white-nose syndrome infection rate did than the Asian bats, but some individual little brown bats had relatively low fungal loads.

If it turns out that the variation comes from genetic differences between the little brown bats, then resistance in the species may evolve, the UCSC team suggested.

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The researchers don't know yet how the Asian bats are becoming resistant.

"It doesn't have to be the same strategy for every species," said study co-author Kate Langwig, at UCSC for the study and now a Harvard postdoctoral researcher. "It could be differences in the skin microbiome in one and hibernation behavior in another. But we just don't have those details yet."

This northern long-eared bat in Illinois is affected by white-nose syndrome.

Did you know April 17 is bat appreciation day? And why not? These flying mammals, though they look a bit scary to some people, are actually most welcome critters, for all of the good they do. Bats are terrific pollinators and seed-dispersers of hundreds of plant species, and they eat tons of insects -- enough to match their own body weight on a good night of foraging. So on this day, appreciate them we will! Let's have a look at some more of these winged wonders.

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Most bats spend their days sleeping, in preparation for their nocturnal foraging. Their slumber may look upside-down to us, but to them it's totally the way you're supposed to do it.

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Bats love, love, love insects, but they'll also eat fruits, flower nectar, vertebrates, and -- yes, indeed -- blood.

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This female dwarf epauletted fruit bat is in a family way, at the moment. Pregnant bats usually carry just one child at a time. Once born, the moms will nurse the newbies until they're almost fully grown, as the little ones' wings need to be fully developed before they can hunt for food on their own.

Vampire Bats Suck Blood of Baby Penguins

Bat colonies roost together, and can do so in unspeakably large numbers -- in the millions, in some cases and caves.

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And when they take wing at dusk, they do that together too, in huge swarms.

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There are more than 1,200 species of bat, the vast percentage of them insectivores.

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Bats have generally small teeth that will vary by species, but they're plenty well suited to tearing into bugs, fruit, or even skin if the bat is among the small group of species that dines on vertebrates such as frogs or birds.

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Bats' wings are a lot thinner than those of birds, which helps them move fast, with incredible precision. Of course their thinness makes them fragile and susceptible to tearing. But if the tears aren't too large, they heal quickly.

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Sadly, bats today are experiencing a health emergency that first came to light in 2006. In large numbers, they're being decimated by a condition called white-nose syndrome, a fungus that grows on the muzzles, ears, and wings and is fatal nearly 100 percent of the time. This northern long-eared bat in Illinois is affected by white-nose syndrome. While there has been some

encouraging research

into treatments, there is as yet no cure for the disease. Here's hoping one arrives soon, because we need bats!

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