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Local bat researchers shed ultraviolet light on white nose syndrome

A banded bat clings to the wall of the tunnel.

May 3, 2012

SHOHOLA, PA — Bat researchers based in Shohola are employing an unconventional tool—ultraviolet light—in efforts to unlock another piece of the puzzle that is white nose syndrome (WNS), the mysterious disease that started in the Albany, NY area in 2005-06 that has killed millions of bats and continues to spread. One potential outcome of the research could be clues to a precursor condition that sets the stage for further development of the fungal phase that typically leads to a bat’s death.

So named for the white ring of Geomyces destructans (Gd), a cold-loving fungus that develops on an afflicted bat, WNS causes a hibernating bat to wake too early, resulting in starvation through excess activity and inadequate insect availability. Unusual behavior, loss of body fat and damaged wing membranes are other symptoms of the deadly disease. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WNS has killed at least 6.7 million bats in 16 states and four Canadian provinces.

The high bat mortality and rapid spread of the disease has raised global concerns about the future viability of many bat species. While some species could be facing extinction, it is estimated that bat populations in the Northeast could take centuries to rebound.

Principal researcher John Gumbs and his wife, Mitzi Kaiura, have teamed up with scientists and state agency professionals from Pennsylvania and New Jersey in using ultraviolet light to identify fluorescent lesions associated with Gd as a non-lethal method of rapid field detection.

Initial observations and laboratory results from UV research during 2009-10 winter bat surveys in New Jersey and Pennsylvania demonstrated that WNS-positive bat tissue fluoresces when exposed to a narrow spectrum of long-wave UV light. Results of the research so far support the use of UV light as a tool to suggest the presence of Gd before the fungus is visible.

Gumbs brings an interesting set of skills and experience, along with an open-minded approach, to the puzzle. A search and rescue professional, former wildlife rehabilitator and an aircraft mechanic who also flew corporate jets, Gumbs sports an inventive mind that seldom stops looking for ways to improve a tool, solve a problem or innovate an unconventional solution.

“When you’re going into a new frontier, you don’t know where you’re headed and you don’t know how to get there,” he said. “You don’t know what’s relevant and what isn’t. That’s why you need to keep an open mind.”