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Pseudogymnoascus destructans in the UK

In 2013 the first positive cases of Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd) (previously named Geomyces destructans) were confirmed in the UK. This is the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in North America. It has been found at many sites in continental Europe but importantly without the associated syndrome that has caused the deaths of millions of bats. Up until 2013, despite a passive surveillance programme, we had not found the fungus here. That changed and we now have confirmation that the fungus is present at five sites in South East England and an additional site in the East of England (confirmed in 2014). There is no evidence that we also have white-nose syndrome.

The positive cases come from a combination of passive and active surveillance. One confirmation was from a swab sample taken from a live Daubenton’s bat at a hibernation site in Kent back in February 2013. The testing process can be lengthy due to the difficulties in culturing the fungus from a small sample. However, the Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) confirmed that the swab was positive for Pd in July 2013. A second positive case came from another Daubenton's bat this time at a hibernation site in Norfolk in March 2014 and was confirmed in May 2014. 

The other confirmations came from environmental samples collected as part of a small scale pilot study to trial an active surveillance programme. This project was undertaken in collaboration with the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA, formerly the Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency) and Northern Arizona University. The methodology involved testing environmental samples for the presence of the fungus rather than bats directly. During their annual NBMP hibernation visits, volunteers collected sediment and surface samples from six sites in South East England. A number of samples from five sites tested positive for the presence of Pd.

There have been no significant mortalities reported from any of the sites the samples were collected at or mass mortalities at any other hibernation site in the UK. Pd is present across a large part of Europe and there have been no cases of white-nose syndrome, no associated mass mortalities of bats. It is thought probable that European bats have a resistance to the fungus, possibly evolved over thousands of years of exposure. In North America Pd is a novel pathogen and so native species do not have the same resistance to the fungus.

Research by Sébastien Puechmaille and his team at University College Dublin had previously indicated that conditions in the UK should be suitable for Pd. These findings fit with that modelling work and indicate that it is highly likely the fungus is present across a wider part of the UK. Additional systematic survey work is underway to understand the distribution of the fungus across a larger area. Knowing this, with reasonable certainty, has significant implications for bat conservation and the guidance provided to bat workers. 

BCT is very grateful to the NBMP volunteers who took part in the pilot project. The project would not have been possible without the generous support of Alex Barlow of the APHA and Kevin Drees at Northern Arizona University. We are also grateful to those bat workers who have submitted swabs and dead bats for testing in the passive surveillance programme and those participating in subsequent project work.

The guidelines we produce for bat workers are reviwed annually. We continue to update the information on the BCT website and provide updated guidance to other individuals visiting hibernation sites through our key caving contacts. If you have any questions about this information or BCT’s work in this area please contact Lisa Worledge (lworledge@bats.org.uk).

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