In the northeastern United States, a deadly fungus is killing bats. Known as white nose syndrome, the mysterious infection was discovered just four years ago, and yet it is already threatening regional bat populations with extinction. The vast majority of bats that get white nose syndrome do not survive. There is no cure.
But there may be hope. According to a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (and written up over at Wild Muse) providing warm refuges within caves could slash the number of bats dying by up to 75 percent.
Bats are crucially important animals, both to local ecosystems and to people - they eat insect pests and help pollinate crops. In the short time since its discovery, white nose syndrome is thought to have claimed over a million bats, affected nine species, and spread from the northeastern U.S. into southeastern Canada, and as far west as Missouri.
It strikes in winter. While bats hibernate, the cold-loving fungus grows on the animals' skin, irritating them and waking them from their torpor. This results in a huge energy cost to the bats, who have to warm their bodies from a few degrees above freezing to full operating temperature in the high nineties.