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.”
Gumbs likens the process to that used in search and rescue. “When you’re dealing with a new pathogen like this, it’s as if somebody dumped a jigsaw puzzle on the ground and never showed you what the picture was. A search manager takes the clues and puts them together to organize how the search runs. You don’t know where you’re going, but you use the clues to develop a methodology to get there.
“We took a light used for mineralogy and played with it until we tripped across a connection,” he said. “We were told not to bother with this research. But we persevered, and it’s since been supported by laboratory diagnosis.”
In addition, Gumbs points out that bats are still misunderstood. Integral partners in agriculture who help to pollinate crops and consume billions of destructive insects, many of us fail to recognize their importance. “Bats have gotten a bad rap, due to fear and misinformation,” said Gumbs. “With the death of so many bats, we’ve got to get people who have bats in their vicinity to be supportive and not try to eradicate those bats that still exist.
“We need to support every bat, because they only have one pup per year. With mortality figures running 95 to 98%, the populations have taken such a beating. The genetic pool is down, and their ability to bounce back is severely hampered. It will be many decades before we see any kind of rebound, if at all.”
Gumbs can be reached at email@example.com  or 570/409-0395. Visit www.SaveLucytheBat.org  and www.batmanagement.com  for resources supporting bats. Visit www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/  to learn more about WNS.