Campus News

Study offers new view of how bat disease spreads

The spread of white-nose syndrome, an emerging fungal disease in bats, may be determined by habitat and climate, scientists at UGA have found.

Using data about the spread of white-nose syndrome to date, postdoctoral researcher Sean P. Maher and colleagues at the Odum School of Ecology made a computer model showing that cave-hibernating species of bats in areas with cold winters are most vulnerable to the disease. Their study in Nature Communications finds simulations that suggest white-nose syndrome is likely to spread rapidly among vulnerable populations, reaching a peak in 2015-2016.

Bats are ecologically and economically important animals. They fly at night, consuming insects by the ton. According to an estimate released by the U.S. Geological Survey, bats can save farmers up to $50 billion a year in crop damage caused by insects.

White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease of bats first identified in 2006. Since then, it has spread westward from the northeastern U.S., decreasing some bat populations by 80 percent, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.

Maher and colleagues started by comparing disease dispersal models. They then began adding more variables relating specifically to geography and habitat. They found that a disease dispersal model that includes variables for habitat (caves) and climate (specifically, the length of winter) best fits the data. From there, they could simulate the future spread of the disease.

As well as new infections peaking in 2015-2016, their simulations suggest that most areas of the U.S. with caves may be infected within the next 100 years.

According to Maher, one of the most significant findings here is a new view of how a disease can spread.

“Most disease models are made after the fact, whereas here the authors were able to model disease dispersal as it’s happening,” said study co-author Andrew M. Kramer, who also is a postdoctoral researcher in the Odum School.