Novel ideas could win big in a fight to save bats

Biologists are fighting to reverse one of the most devastating population declines to afflict North America’s wildlife, and you just might have the solution.

Since 2007, a fungal disease has killed millions of bats in North America and has pushed some native bat species to the brink of extinction. The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd for short), is spreading across the continent and invading the bats’ winter hideaways. Attacking the skin of hibernating bats and causing them to be more active than usual, the infection causes bats to burn up critical fat stores needed to sustain them through the winter.

A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. USFWS

The resulting disease was dubbed white-nose syndrome for the “fuzz” that appeared on bats muzzles. It was first seen in a single, small cave in upstate New York in 2006. The disease has now been confirmed in 33 states and seven Canadian provinces. At some Pd-infected sites, over 90% of bats have disappeared.

Most North American bats eat insects and are critical pest controllers. In the United States alone, bats are estimated to save farmers at least $3.7 billion per year in pest control services. A single bat can eat up to its own body weight in insects each night. Due to the drastic reduction in native bat populations, millions of additional insects are feeding on gardens, trees and crops, which can impact forestry, agriculture and even human health.

The response to white-nose syndrome began with international collaborations between federal, state and provincial agencies, tribes, universities, and non-governmental organizations. A widening variety of experts worked together in search of answers and solutions — field biologists, physiologists, wildlife disease specialists, geneticists, microbiologists. It would take three years before scientists confirmed that the fungus itself — never before known to science — was causing bat mortalities by disrupting their winter metabolism. Since 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided over $46M in funding to researchers, States, and partners to meet high priority needs for research and field support, all in an effort to improve our understanding of the disease and protect the bats in its path.

Big brown bats. Pete Pattavina/USFWS

From these efforts, a variety of management tools for white-nose syndrome have shown promise and are the subject of further research and development. These include:

  • Applying compounds to bats or the environment that might kill or inhibit fungal growth.
  • Using specific wavelengths of UV light to damage the fungus on bats or in the environment.
  • Encouraging beneficial microbes that may hinder the fungus’ infectious ability.
  • Changing temperature and humidity of winter roosts to lessen the severity of white-nose syndrome.
  • Vaccinating bats to improve their abilities to survive white-nose syndrome.

And yet, the fungus continues to march across the continent, posing a deathly threat to bats in its path.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the White-nose Syndrome Response Team are seeking the help of ordinary citizens, innovative scientists and novel problem-solvers to leave no stone unturned in the search for a permanent solution.

Tricolored bat. Pete Pattavina/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a $100,000 challenge to combat the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. Awards of up to $20,000 are available for individuals or teams who identify innovative ways to permanently eradicate, weaken, or disarm the fungus. You don’t have to be a bat expert to enter the challenge. The opportunity is open to anyone with a groundbreaking idea for tools or techniques that could reduce the effects of the fungus without harming other beneficial species or the environment.

The White-nose Syndrome Challenge is an ideation challenge. It seeks to support new ways of understanding and framing problems, new processes to solve problems and innovative implementations as solutions to problems. This Challenge does not require a final prototype, proposal or budget for immediate implementation, nor seek to duplicate strategies currently in development. New ideas that offer significant improvements in scalability, efficacy, or feasibility of existing methods or new management strategies to combat the fungus are welcome.

Winning submissions will receive a prize of up to $20,000, and these ideas will be the focus of future collaborations with scientists, designers and engineers to bring solutions to life. Additional information regarding rules and eligibility is available at www.whitenosesyndrome.org and on www.challenge.gov. The White-nose Syndrome Challenge is open through December 31, 2019.

Will yours be the winning idea?

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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Conserving wildlife and habitats from Maine to Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania.