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Are UK bats immune to White-Nose Syndrome which is killing millions of North American bats?

8 August 2013

Geomyces destructans (recently renamed Psuedogymnoascus destructans) , the fungus associated with the deaths of over 5.7 million bats in North America since 2006, has been found in the UK for the first time.

The fungus has been found on a live bat and in environmental samples collected at five sites in Kent and Sussex. Unlike in North America, there has been no observed mass die-off of bats which could indicateUKbats may be resistant to the fungus.

In North America the fungus causes White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) which has devastated many North American bat populations. The fungus (but not WNS) has previously been confirmed at sites across Europe, but without the associated large numbers of dead bats. It is likely European bats are generally immune to the disease.

In North Americathe fungus leads bats to arouse more frequently from hibernation during winter. This uses up valuable fat reserves which cannot be easily replaced due to a lack of available food and water during the cold winter period. In North America this has led to the death of millions of dehydrated underweight bats.

The UK fungus was found on a live bat at a bat hibernation site in Kent early in 2013 and in environmental samples collected at total of 5 sites in Kent and Sussex. The bat was swabbed by an experienced volunteer as part of an Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) Wildlife Group (under the Diseases of Wildlife Scheme) and Bat Conservation Trust surveillance programme. The bat appeared healthy despite the fungus on one of its ears and no dead bats have been found at the site.

Bat Conservation Trust is calling for funding to carry out further testing to establish whether the fungus is widespread in the UK. Further funding is needed for a national programme, to conduct the tests and to buy sampling kits.

Bat Conservation Trust’s Chief Executive Julia Hanmer explains:

“In North America the fungus causes White-Nose Syndrome and millions of bats have died, in Europe the fungus has been found on bats but the difference is that these animals are alive and appear to be healthy. There is no evidence of WNS inEurope. It is thought that the fungus has been present inEuropefor a long time and European bats have developed resilience to it. The fungus was most likely introduced to North America from this side of the Atlantic, hence the dramatic effect it is having on bat populations there, as they have no immunity to the disease.”

Bat Conservation Trust’s Chief Executive Julia Hanmer explains:

“In America the fungus can kill 90-100% of bats in a hibernation roost, in Europe it looks like bats can carry the fungus without affecting the population. Scientists believe that large parts of the UK could be suitable for the fungus but we need to test this theory by carrying out further survey work across the UK during the next winter hibernation period. Current research and findings do indicate that, like in other European countries, the UK’s bats are likely to be resistant. It is very important that we investigate further to better understand the effect of the fungus on UK bats.”

AHVLA Wildlife group's Alex Barlow indicated that:

"The AHVLA Wildlife Group and Bat Conservation Trust started surveillance for G. destructans in British bats in 2009 in response to the devastating spread of WNS across North America."

Scientists are cautiously optimistic that the fungus may be found across the UK and that UK bats may be resistant. However the Bat Conservation Trust is asking those visiting hibernation sites, such as caves, in the winter to remain vigilant. The Bat Conservation Trust is asking that those planning on visiting caves this winter, including bat workers and cavers, to follow guidelines and decontaminate their kit with antifungal spray before and after their visit, particularly if they have been or are about to be travelling abroad.

NOTES TO EDITORS

  • For more information about white-nose syndrome and guidance for bat workers please visit www.bats.org.uk/wns NB Additional genetic studies by scientists in the USA has found that Geomyces destructans should actually be classified within a difference genus and has recently been renamed Psuedogymnoascus destructans.
  • Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) is the only national organisation solely devoted to the conservation of bats and their habitats in the UK. Its network of 100 local bat groups and more than 1,000 bat workers survey roosts and hibernation sites, and work with householders, builders, farmers and foresters to protect bats. www.bats.org.uk
  • The AHVLA Diseases of Wildlife Scheme (AHVLA; DoWS) has, since 1998, investigated wildlife disease and mortality in England and Wales. This government supported veterinary scheme is particularly interested in new wildlife disease and mass mortalities of wild species. In 2009, the DoWS was strengthened when the AHVLA became part of the Great Britain Wildlife Disease Surveillance Partnership (GBWDSP). For further information and GBWDSP quarterly wildlife disease reports.
  • The National Bat Helpline 0845 1300 228 is for anyone who finds a grounded or injured bat, believes bats to be at risk and for anyone who thinks they may have bats in their building or wants to let us know about a bat roost site.
  • The environmental samples were collected as part of a small-scale pilot project to determine the possible presence of the fungus in Kent and Sussex. Bat Conservation Trust volunteers took environmental samples alongside their usual population surveys at bat hibernation sites. This was a joint project between the Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency, Bat Conservation Trust and Northern Arizona University.

For further information: Press Office Abi McLoughlin  E-mail: amcloughlin@bats.org.uk  T: 0207 8207183. Interviews available on request.

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