White-Nose Syndrome: Researchers Continue Fight to Save Bats

In 2015, researchers from the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) joined forces with fellow scientists from across the USDS Forest Service to fight the battle for bats.

A bat infected with white-nose syndrome. (Photo credit: Al Hicks, NYSDEC, Bugwood.org

A bat infected with white-nose syndrome. (Photo credit: Al Hicks, NYSDEC, Bugwood.org

According to a new interactive map published by the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 6 million bats in Eastern North America have died from White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) since 2006, and the population continues to decrease.

The syndrome, caused by Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), is a fungal disease that attacks the mouth, nose, and wings of hibernating bats, leading to dehydration, an unstable body temperature, and death.

As one of the main predators of night-flying insects, bats help keep the forest ecosystems healthy and balanced. WNS has spread among seven species of bat in North America and plant pathologists and mycologists at FPL have been working to stop it.

With help from scientists at Georgia State University and other Forest Service stations, researchers at the Lab’s Center for Forest Mycology Research formed the first team of experts to conduct treatment trials on WNS-infected bats.  The bats were treated with a volatile organic compound produced by a common soil bacteria, in hopes that it will inhibit the growth of Pd.  So far, the treatment has proven successful, but scientists continue to monitor the effects.

While WNS has largely remained contained in states east of the Great Plains, researchers across the entire country continue to take preventative measures, such as restricting access to caves, to help prevent and decrease further spread of the disease.  Other WNS research areas include habitat management and identification of resistant populations.

As the possibilities for treatment and eradication of WNS continue to develop, so does a healthier future for bats and forests everywhere.

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta

Scientists Receive Grant Funding for White-Nose Syndrome Research

Four USDA Forest Service research studies examining strategies for managing white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease that has killed an estimated 5 to 6 million bats in the United States, are among projects that will receive grant funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Fungi and bats are among the most elusive species on the planet, which makes white-nose syndrome a particularly challenging disease to manage,” said Michael T. Rains, Director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. “Forest Service scientists have expertise on both and are working on a variety of approaches to reduce the mortality of bats in the face of this devastating disease. We are honored and grateful for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s support of this research.”

Little brown bats hibernate together in caves. Most of these bats have fungal growth on their noses. Photo courtesy of Nancy Heaslip, NY Department of Environmental Conservation.

Little brown bats hibernate together in caves. Most of these bats have fungal growth on their noses. Photo courtesy of Nancy Heaslip, NY Department of Environmental Conservation.

White-nose syndrome is caused by a cold-loving fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which is deadly to hibernating bats because it penetrates tissues of the nose and mouth as well as the wings, which are vital to bats’ ability to avoid dehydration and maintain body temperature. In affected hibernacula, 78 to 100 percent of bat populations have died.

As a major predator of defoliating forest and agricultural insects, bats are important to forests and forest health. The value of bats to the agricultural industry is estimated at $23 billion/year.

The grants, which were announced Tuesday, include a total of $410,690 for Forest Service research at the Northern Research Station, the Southern Research Station, and the Center for Forest Mycology Research, part of the Forest Products Laboratory. Projects include:

  • In Columbia, Mo., Sybill Amelon is leading a project that includes Forest Service scientist Dan Lindner, Chris Cornelison, a postdoctoral research associate at Georgia State University, and Sarah Hooper, a comparative medicine resident at the University of Missouri, to explore the use of a native soil bacterium to produce natural volatiles that inhibit growth of the Pd fungus that causes WNS. Their work received a grant of $165,000.
  • In Madison, Wis., Lindner and a team that includes Forest Service researchers Jessie Glaeser, Jonathan Palmer and Michelle Jusino are analyzing the sensitivities of Pd to UV light and the possibility of using light to kill Pd in caves bats use to hibernate. Their work received a grant of $129,681.
  • In Clemson, S.C., Susan Loeb is working with Eric Britzke of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center on research that focuses on understanding the vulnerability of tri-colored bats to WNS in the southern United States. Loeb’s work received a grant of $95,409
  • In Madison, Glaeser is developing decontamination protocols to mitigate human-based transmission of Pd. She will receive a grant of $20,600.

Visiting Scientist Contributes to Fungal Database

Collaboration brings a wealth of resources to research, and international visiting scientists can often be found working along side permanent researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).

Dr. Xingxia Ma, Chinese Academy of Forestry

Dr. Xingxia Ma, Chinese Academy of Forestry

One such scientist is Professor Xingxia Ma, Chinese Academy of Forestry, Bejing, China, who recently completed a research sabbatical in the Durability and Wood Protection research unit at FPL.

Dr. Ma’s research included developing comparative decay test methodologies and genetic identification of soil-inhabiting fungi present in laboratory fungal cellar beds.

Fungal cellar beds are a standardized method for accelerated testing of wood and wood-based materials in contact with soil.The soil bed is amended with select fungi that cause brown- and white-rot decay of wood. These fungi are intended to accelerate the rate of decay in wood samples that are embedded in soil tubs; however, the majority of decay observed in soil bed tests is usually a third type of decay called soft-rot. Fungi that cause soft-rot thrive in environments with elevated moisture and high nitrogen content.

Fungal cellar isolates were Sanger-sequenced for genetic identification and entered into FPL’s fungal database. Development of a fungal database was identified as a National priority by members of the wood protection industry.

Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers Catherine Duncan

Lab Notes remembers another pioneering woman scientist: Catherine Gross Duncan. Duncan received her A.B. Degree in botany from the Depauw University in 1931. She went on to earn her M.S. and her P.h.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and 1935, respectively.

In December 1942, she joined the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin. Originally, she was recruited by the Lab to aid in the war effort. Duncan stayed after the war for the remainder of her career. She eventually rose to the rank of principal pathologist at the FPL in the Wood Fungi and Insects Research, where she served until her death in 1968.


Ralph Lindgren and Catherine Duncan inspecting the growth of a fungus that is part of the fungi collection.

During her career, Duncan published over 40 papers examining various aspects of wood decay fungi. A majority of her work surrounded the quality and improvement of wood preservatives. Duncan was also involved with the dissertations of 30 students while she worked at FPL. Students noted that “It was always a challenge to meet her standards for rigor and proof in research”.

Early in her career, one of the first projects she completed for FPL was to examine the natural resistance of decay from different species of trees. In studying these differences, she helped develop the soil-block technique, which allows for wood decay to be studied at an accelerated rate. This technique became especially important when evaluating wood preservatives and their longevity, and is still in use today.


Soil-block tests showing the effects of fungi on a specimen: (A) fungus growing on
untreated wood specimen; (B) fungus fruiting on untreated wood specimen; (C) preservative-treated wood specimen.

Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers Frances Lombard

In honor of Women’s History Month, Lab Notes remembers Frances F. Lombard. At a time when few women worked in science, Lombard received a M.A. degree in mycology (the study of mushrooms and other fungi) from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Lombard joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1941 and served in the Agricultural Research and Forest Services as a mycologist, specializing in the identification of wood-decaying and wood-inhabiting Homobasidiomycetes in pure culture. She was stationed at the Center for Forest Mycology Research at FPL and published over 20 papers during her tenure.

Frances Lombard studying a fungus using a light microscope.

Frances Lombard studying a fungus using a light microscope.

FPL has a long history of mycology research. The Center for Forest Mycology Research  houses the largest wood fungus collection in the world, with over 5,000 species of fungi. Whereas the mycology research has numerous goals, many of these fungi are used in research to determine the effectiveness of wood preservatives.

Thanks to a pioneering woman scientist and her work for the Lab.