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NewsJan 19, 2022

White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats — Christopher Richardson is trying to figure out why

Federal grant will allow for expanded research, genomic testing

Macro photo of a bat with white-nose syndrome
Bat with white-nose syndrome. Image courtesy: Jonathan Mays, Wildlife Biologist, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

With a new $90,000 grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, bat researcher and Lesley Biology Instructor Christopher Richardson will study the continued effects of a disease that has killed millions of the winged mammals since it was first discovered in 2007. And he’ll do it by examining their excrement.

“Animal droppings have very valuable information,” says Richardson.

Glamorous it’s not, but the work stands to provide invaluable data on how bat populations that have been devastated by white-nose syndrome are faring and how colonies in the early stages of recovering from the disease may be given resources to help them survive.

Nothing to sniff at

There is no current cure for white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus that leaves a white powder on bats’ noses. In some cases, entire colonies have died, but others are rebounding. Richardson said one colony of more than 1,000 bats plummeted to 50 after becoming infected with the syndrome but has now returned to around 400. Why is still a question.

Faculty Christopher Richardson
Biology Instructor Christopher Richardson

For the grant, Richardson is teaming up with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute, which does genomic sequencing, along with bat researchers from Tulane University and the University of Las Vegas, to examine the top indicators that show if and how quickly a bat population will recover from white-nose syndrome. Little brown bats will be the primary focus of the study.

Going batty

From their droppings, “we can learn about a mammal’s reproductive status, immunological status and stress levels,” Richardson says.

Cortisol (aka the stress hormone), inflammation and coronavirus strains can be found in bat poop. The prevalence of these indicators may correlate to a bat’s ability to recover from white-nose. The more factors that tax a bat’s system, the less able they may be to survive disease, which is especially true for reproductive female bats.

Evaluating their droppings at multiple colonies instead of handling the bats was a big selling point for the grantees. Because the coronavirus can jump between mammalian species, there were concerns that researchers could communicate covid-19 to the bats they are trying to help. Richardson said limited handling of bats by vaccinated individuals wearing protective equipment will be permitted, but overall, they will focus on droppings.

Collecting poop reduces the risk of contamination and has the added benefit of increasing data collection by allowing citizen scientists to participate. It also means researchers from across the country, instead of just New England and the Mid Atlantic, can send frozen samples for the Broad Institute to examine.

Brown bats with white nose syndrome - hanging from the ceiling of a cave
Brown bats with white-nose syndrome in a cave in New York. Image courtesy: NY State Department of Environmental Conservation

Additionally, the grant will allow Richardson to double the colonies he can monitor, for a total of eight in New England, and provide helpful data to areas such as Washington state and Manitoba, Canada, where white-nose was detected recently.

If data shows that bats are in distress, “then you can put more resources in to protect those bats,” says Richardson. He can also evaluate how different strains of the virus affect colonies and how the stress and immune responses are associated with healthier bats.

In addition to preserving an insect- and mosquito-eating mammal, the data could help humans. Researchers often look to mice to understand how people may respond to different diseases, but Richardson says, “There could be some insight from studying a bat model for understanding humans too.”

The grant officially begins in May 2022 and will last two years. During that time, Richardson plans to bring in Lesley students as interns, as he has done with previous research grants. This time, the added partnership of the Broad Institute has the potential to “open up all kinds of opportunities for student internships, and possible research experiences” he says.