Bat-Killing Fungus Found in China for First Time

The fungus that causes white nose syndrome, seen here afflicting a little brown bat, has been found in China, its first sighting in Asia. USGS

The fungus that causes white nose syndrome—an often-fatal disease that has decimated populations of several bats species in eastern North America—has been found in several spots throughout eastern China. This is the first time that is has been documented in Asia, significantly enlarging its known range.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Northeast Normal University in China found the fungus in 9 of the 12 sites they sampled, including mines and caves where the bats hibernate. The scientist identified the fungus during sampling trips in the summer; when they returned to 5 of the 9 infected sites during the winter, they found bats infected with the fungus at all five, says Joseph Hoyt, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, grows well in cold and dark conditions, infecting the skin and various organs of many bats species. It can also creates a whitish fuzz on the face and noses of bats, hence the name for the condition—white nose syndrome. Infected bats can be roused from hibernation; when they do, they oftentimes run out of energy and starve to death.

White nose syndrome made its debut in a cave in New York in 2006, and has since spread as far south as Alabama, west to Oklahoma, and north into Ontario and Quebec. It has killed millions of insect-eating bats, and scientists are worried it could drive several species to extinction. The northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), for example, has been decimated by the disease, and was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in April 2015.

In 2010, scientists discovered that the fungus was also present in Europe, and had been introduced to the United States from there, but that European bats have evolved a resistance to the fungus.

The current study, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, shows the fungus is much more widespread than previously thought. However, it doesn't appear that it is killing large numbers of bats in China, which suggests that these bats, like their European counterparts, may also have developed resistance to the fungus. In other words, it doesn't appear that it recently spread to China, but has probably been there for quite a while, Hoyt says.