A SPREADING PLAGUE
THE FUNGUS Pseudogymnoascus destructans causes white-nose syndrome, the disease that is destroying North America’s bats.
Imagine every few hours, night after night, an unknown irritant wakes you from your sound sleep. Imagine how this would affect your physical and mental health and how disorienting it would be.
This is what happens to bats with white-nose syndrome. Pseudogymnoascus destructans is spread by microscopic spores carried by the bats’ fur, and it causes the bats to rouse more frequently from hibernation.
“This increased waking from torpor is using up their fat stores during a time of year when there are not a lot of insects for them to eat,” Sirajuddin says. Eventually, the bats starve to death. The fungus can also produce lesions on the delicate skin of the wings, disrupting flight and causing dehydration.
White-nose syndrome is believed to have been brought to North America from Europe. The first cases were found in bats in 2006 near Albany, New York. Since then, the disease has marched rapidly across 31 states and five Canadian provinces, killing 6 million to 8 million bats across North America.
It only affects bats that hibernate in cold caves and similar structures, such as mines and tunnels, called hibernacula. White-nose typically kills 70 to 90 percent of bats in an infected hibernaculum. Cases of 100 percent mortality have been found.
White-nose syndrome was first found in South Carolina in 2013 near Table Rock State Park and in the historic Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel in 2014. Ten counties in the state have now been reported to have the fungus, with three of those added in March 2018. Until 2016, the disease had only affected bats in the eastern U.S., but in March of that year, a group of hikers near Seattle found a dying bat. The U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Health Center confirmed that white-nose had spread into the western U.S.
Unfortunately for the tricolored bats and fortunately for the Clemson researchers, Pseudogymnoascus destructans thrives best in 50-58 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature range of many caves in South Carolina and the Southeast — and exactly that of the tunnel being explored in the fall of 2017.
So as coincidence would have it, the humidity level and temperature that was once ideal for curing Clemson Blue Cheese is also perfect for growing bat-killing fungus.