White nose syndrome highlights need for sustained investment in research
Oct31

White nose syndrome highlights need for sustained investment in research

As researchers learn more about Pseudogymnoascus (Geomyces) destructans, the fungus that causes White Nose syndrome in bats, more becomes known about what makes this disease so resilient and seemingly invincible. Various estimates put the bat death toll in the United States in the vicinity of about six million bats since it was first discovered seven years ago. The fungus infects bats during their winter hibernation months when their body temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). While it is unknown precisely what causes death in the bats, the virus seems to wake the bats amid their hibernation in the middle of winter, when fruit and insects are scarce. In addition to the damaged skin and tell-tale fungus covered white nose, researchers have found the dead bats with empty stomachs, which suggests that they starve to death. A recent study from the University of Illinois aimed at understanding the biology of the White nose syndrome fungus pinpoints the tenacious adaptability of the disease. The study, spearheaded by graduate student Daniel Raudabaugh, found that the fungus can survive a wide range of pH, with the exception of extremely acidic substances, which would be difficult to introduce into a natural environment without contaminating habitat and other life forms. Other than its vulnerability to warm temperatures, the only other weakness reported in the organism is its low ability to take in water from surfaces. The fungus compensates for this weakness, however, with an ability to absorb water from the degraded fats and free fatty acids found in the skin of living and dead animals. But there are signs of hope in the quest to eradicate the disease. This summer, graduate student Chris Cornelison, a microbiologist with Georgia State University, highlighted a study he is working on in conjunction with several research teams that may have discovered a natural bacterium (Rhodococcus rhodochrous strain DAP96253) that could inhibit the fungus without damaging the bats or the caves they inhabit. While early test results have shown promise, Cornelison asserts further study is needed to properly assess potential impacts on the cave ecosystems and the bats themselves. Additionally, scientists with the US Forest Service, in a recent study, identified a close fungal relative to White Nose Syndrome that may help researchers to better genetically map the fungus and better understand how it functions. Another bright spot: recognition of the need to combat White nose syndrome is among the few issues Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree on. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) has noted that bats are worth billions to the agriculture industry due to...

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In ecology news: bats, antbirds, wildfire recriminations, and retractions

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, evolved in the old world, but has been very successful in the new, with a talent for colonizing disturbed rangeland. It fuels early season range fires. Credit, Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé “Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz,” 1885. http://www.biolib.de/ Bats & Birds (& Ants) The Nature Conservancy has built a bat bunker, a cleanable, climate-monitored refuge, near Bellamy Cave in TN. They’re hoping the clean cave can buy time for immunity or science to intervene in the deadly fungus outbreak sweeping through North America, attacking bats in their sleep. Awake, bats resist the infection. But in hibernation, slow metabolism, low body temperature, and the close press of companions make the bats vulnerable. James Gorman “Building a Bat Cave to Battle a Killer” NY Times – 24 Sep 2012 Antbirds trail after army ant swarms, stealing the ants’ hard earned harvest of grasshoppers, beetles, and spiders. Butterflies follow the birds to eat their poop. Natalie Angier talked to ecologist Janeene Touchton in Panama, and cited Touchton’s and James Smith’s 2010 paper in Ecology. Natalie Angier “Feathered Freeloaders at the Ant Parade.”  NY Times 24 Sep 2012 Species loss, delayed numerical responses, and functional compensation in an antbird guild. Janeene M. Touchton and James N. M. Smith. Ecology 2011 92:5, 1126-1136 Tempers ignite over wildfire management Bill Baker of the University of Wyoming says megafires predate fire suppression, logging, and other management interventions blamed for recent conflagrations in North America – contradicting current management practices and a larger body of research. In a podcast, intern Emily Guerin describes (unsympathetically) vitriol from wildfire ecologists toward Baker’s position on fire in the west. Nature told a more canonical story about how “Forests in the American west are under attack from giant fires, climate change and insect outbreaks. Some ecosystems will never be the same.” Emily Guerin “Fire scientists fight over what Western forests should look like.” High Country News 17 Sep 2012. Cally Carswell, Emily Guerin, Neil LaRubbio “West of 100: Fire & Brimstone.” (audio) High Country News 25 Sep 2012. Mark A. Williams and William L. Baker Testing the accuracy of new methods for reconstructing historical structure of forest landscapes using GLO survey data. Ecological Monographs 2011 81:1, 63-88 Michelle Niihuis “Forest fires: Burn out.” Nature News 19 Sep 2012 Ira Flatow, on location at Boise State University, was also talking about wildfire last week. “Nearly a million acres are burning in the West right now.” Range fires. Who’s to blame? Is this a new thing? Today, we’re blaming Cheatgrass. Flatow talks to Jen Pierce, a paleo fire ecologist, and Mike Pellant,...

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ESA gives environmental offset donation to bat and wildflower organizations

When 3,500 individuals from across the country and around the globe convene for a scientific conference such as the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) recent meeting in Austin, Texas, it takes a toll on the environment.  There is the carbon footprint from the various modes of travel to get to the meeting.  But there is also the broader environmental cost of the habitat loss and the wildlife displacement that occurred to build a convention center and nearby hotels, the structures which make such a meeting possible. As one way to offset this environmental cost, ESA contributes $5 for each registrant at its annual meeting to an environmental offset contribution which it donates to a local project or organization in the city in which it meets.  This year, the Society gave $9,230 each to Bat Conservation International (BCI) and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, both located in Austin. BCI supports bat conservation worldwide, offering grants and scholarships, monitoring bat populations and caves, protecting bats colonies in abandoned mines, and supporting educational outreach.  Austin is a logical home for the organization since the city boasts North America’s largest urban bat colony, which lives under Congress Avenue Bridge.  BCI plans to put ESA’s donation towards protecting bats from White-nose syndrome, wind power and other threats. The mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to “increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.”  Among its activities are hosting ecological research, collecting and storing seeds of native plants, and hosting an online database of over 7,200 native plant species through its Native Plant Information Network. The Center plans to put the Society’s donation towards its environmental and ecological restoration projects. Photos: Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome, Nancy Heaslip, NY Dept. of Envr. Conservation; Wildflowers in Austin from Flickr by Spyderella  ...

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Bats: an important resource

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst This week, the Ecological Society of America is holding its 96th Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas.  As over 3,000 ecologists participate in the meeting’s numerous scientific sessions, a highlight in Austin that most meeting attendees will make every effort to see are the city’s famous bats. As seen in the video below, between March and November, every evening around dusk, onlookers near the Ann W. Richards Congress Ave. bridge in Austin are treated to the mass emergence of the Mexican free-tailed bat. According to Bat Conservation International, “it is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit the bridge to witness the bat flight, generating ten million dollars in tourism revenue annually.”  People gather on the bridge and on boats to witness the emergence of the bats each evening. Austin’s Congress Ave. bridge contains the largest urban population of bats in the world, around 1.5 million bats. However, in the wild, there are even larger ‘bat communities.’ The densest populations of the Mexican free-tailed bats are found in the Braken Cave of San Antonio, Texas where the bat population can number upwards of 20 million. It’s estimated that colonies that contain multiple millions of bats can consume 250 tons of insects per day. The Mexican free-tailed bat (as known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat) has a wide range from the western United States, through Mexico, Central America and extending through the northern part of South America. They prefer warm climates and migrate to Central America in the winter. The bats have an average lifespan of approximately 18 years. The bats feed primarily on insects, including those which can become crop pests for farmers. The ability of insect-eating bats to consume such mass quantities of pests has made them an invaluable component for both ecosystem and economic health in the areas they inhabit.  For example, researchers in an Ecological Society of America journal article estimated that Brazilian free-tailed bats saved roughly $740,000 in pesticide costs. During a June congressional hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Subcommittee Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) quoted a Science magazine article placing the value of insect-eating bats to U.S. agriculture being between “$3.7 to 53 billion each year.” Chairman Fleming also noted that “as a doctor, I was interested in learning that some 80 different medicines come from plants that need bats to survive.” The focus of the Congressional hearing was on the impact white-nose syndrome on bat populations as well as the pivotal role insect-eating bats play for the agricultural industry through pollination and pest control. The fungus that causes the disease, Geomyces...

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Record drought in the U.S., cod fishery recovery and Bjork’s ode to E.O. Wilson

This is the last post I will contribute as moderator of ESA’s blog EcoTone—it has been a wonderful, educational experience to explore the connectivity and complexity of life processes and to meet the scientists who have helped to further this cross-disciplinary research. I hope you have enjoyed reading these stories as much as I have enjoyed writing them! Please continue to visit the blog frequently for new posts, and remember that guest submissions are always welcome at esablog@esa.org. See the end of this post for a few highlighted EcoTone articles published since January 2010. Detrimental drought: According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Texas and other southern states are experiencing record-breaking, “exceptional” drought.  And as a recent Reuters article pointed out, these conditions are leading to wildlife hardships. In Austin, for example, the world’s largest urban bat colony has been departing from under the Congress Bridge earlier than usual to search for prey. “The drought has killed off crops in Texas, and that in turn has killed off those delicious pests the Mexican free-tailed bats consider dinner,” wrote Karen Brooks. As a result, the bats are emerging before sunset—providing ample viewing time for bat-watchers but indicating the bats are exerting greater energy to feed. “An extended drought could be a double whammy for central Texas farmers, who depend on the bats to remove some 1,000 tons of insects and pests from the air each night,” wrote Brooks. Read more at “1.5 million bats in Texas city left hungrier by drought.” Conserving water in the West: Many U.S. residents are aware that turning lights off after leaving a room conserves energy; however, people may not be as aware that conserving water is also conserving energy. As Daniel Glick reported in a Scientific American article, “Nationally, energy production sucks more water from freshwater sources than any other sector except agriculture. It takes water to create the power we use to drive our cars, transport our groceries, and run our toaster ovens. Virtually every source of electricity in a typical American home or manufacturing plant—whether it comes from hydroelectricity, coal, natural gas, nuclear, biofuels, or even concentrated solar—also requires water. Lots of water.” Read more at “How Saving Energy Means Conserving Water in U.S. West.” Slow recovery: Researchers from Dalhousie University have reported that, after nearly two decades, cod and haddock fisheries off the coast of Nova Scotia are showing signs of recovery. After the fisheries collapsed due to overconsumption, the Canadian government closed this area in 1993 and has just started to see the ecosystem begin to stabilize. As Hannah Waters concluded in a Scientific American article, this is just one example...

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ESA Policy News: July 10

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. APPROPRIATIONS: SUBCOMMITTEES APPROVE SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENTAL SPENDING BILLS The week of July 6, two House appropriations subcommittees that fund federal agencies with jurisdiction over ecological issues released and marked-up their draft funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill includes a total of $50.2 billion in funding, a reduction of $3.1 billion below FY 2011 spending levels. The House Interior and Environment Appropriations bill includes a total of $27.5 billion in spending, a reduction of $2.1 billion below FY2011 spending levels. FY2012 CJS Bill Highlights: National Science Foundation (NSF) – The bill funds NSF at $6.9 billion, level with FY2011 and $907 million below the president’s request for FY2012. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) – The bill funds OSTP at $3 million, less than half of the $6.6 million it received in FY2011 and $3.65 million below the president’s request. Department of Commerce – The bill contains $7.1 billion for the Commerce Department, $464 million (six percent) below last year’s level and $1.7 billion (19 percent) below the president’s request. Department of the Interior (DOI) – DOI is funded at $9.9 billion, $720 million or seven percent below FY2011 and $1.2 billion below the President’s request. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – The bill includes $1.1 billion for the USGS, a $30 million cut below last year’s level. The majority of the reductions are in climate change and satellite imaging programs, while energy and minerals, natural hazards, and water programs are prioritized. The bill also does not provide funding for the administration’s proposal to transfer the “LandSat” satellite imaging program from NASA to the USGS. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – The bill includes $1 billion for BLM – a decrease of $63 million below last year’s level and a decrease of $60 million below the budget request. This does not include a proposal by the President to increase oil and gas fees by $38 million. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – The FWS is funded at $1.2 billion in the bill, a cut of $315 million (21 percent) below last year’s level. National Park Service (NPS) – NPS is funded at $2.5 billion, $129 million below FY2011. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) – The bill contains $154 million for BOEMRE, which is $72 million below FY2011. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) –  EPA is funded at $7.1 billion, $1.5 billion (18 percent)  below FY2011 and $1.8 billion (20 percent) below the president’s request. The bill also cuts a number of...

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Pollination from the plant’s perspective

If plants had a perspective, they would probably think of pollinators as more than just extra-friendly house guests. That is, plants would be more likely to view pollinators as the mutual friend who likes to set up blind dates. Bees might limit pollen to its use as a protein source for the hive, and birds might devour the flesh of a fruit and eliminate the seed as waste. However, many flowering plants, as Bug Girl pointed out in a post in honor of National Pollinator Week, have evolved alongside these pollinators for only one purpose: reproduction. “Sure, you can toss your pollen out on the wind and hope it lands in the right place. And for a lot of plants, evergreens in particular, this works just fine,” she wrote. “That methodology results in a lot of wasted gametes (plant sperm) though, so for nearly all flowering plants, insects or other pollinators are needed for plant nookie.” Sometimes the pollinator-plant relationship is mutualistic, and in many cases, one species or another is dependent upon the other for its survival. Take the agave plant. Probably the most well-known species is the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana), the nectar of which is used as a granular sugar substitute and to make tequila (one of the “finer” products of pollination, along with chocolate and coffee, mentioned by Bug Girl ). Leptonycteris nivalis, known as the greater long-nosed bat or Mexican long-nosed bat, and the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae), are the primary pollinators of this economically and ecologically valuable plant. This agave-bat relationship is mutually beneficial. The bats, hovering in place like a hummingbird, use their long muzzles to feed on the high-fructose nectar of the agave. At the same time, the plants’ pollen collects on the bats’ fur. The bats then travel from plant to plant, spreading pollen as they drink from the nectar-filled stalks that bloom each night across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The bats also migrate based on the blooming time of these plants. They arrive in Texas—particularly in Big Bend National Park, where a single colony resides in the Chisos Mountains—shortly after agave plants, such as the century plant (Agave havardiana), begin to bloom. Unfortunately, the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-nosed bat are endangered—and as their numbers decline, agave plant reproduction becomes more limited. A little farther north, however, some species of agave plants—those that are not harvested for tequila— have evolved to attract both bats and moths to serve as pollinators. Agave plants have several ways of advertising their nectar: the scent, the color of the flower and the shape, or morphology, of the structure...

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Policy News: May 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. SENATE: GOP MEASURE TO EXPAND OFFSHORE DRILLING IS REJECTED On May 18, the U.S. Senate rejected S. 953 by a vote of 42-57.  The Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011 sought to expedite and expand offshore oil and gas drilling nationwide..  Sponsored by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the bill–similar to legislation the House passed in recent weeks—would would require new lease sales in the Arctic, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and set deadlines for several upcoming Gulf of Mexico lease sales. The bill was opposed by every Senate Democrat. Five Republicans, including Sens. Jim DeMint (SC), Mike Lee (UT), Richard Shelby (AL), Olympia Snowe (ME) and David Vitter (LA), also voted against the bill. Democratic senators from Louisiana and Alaska expressed concerns that the bill does not contain provisions to share oil and gas revenues with coastal states. Sen. Snowe maintained that the measure fails to give states a role in determining what activities are allowed off their coastlines. HOUSE: APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE RELEASES AGENDA FOR FY 2012 BILLS House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), announced May 11 the schedule for completion of work on the twelve fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bills. The plan also includes the total planned funding for each of the twelve bills, which fund federal agencies. In total the appropriations bills would reduce spending by over $30 billion compared to FY 2011 and $121.5 billion less than Ppresident Obama’s FY 2012 budget request. The Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill would be funded at $50.2 billion, $3 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and $7.4 billion less than the president’s request. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill would be funded at $30.6 billion, $1 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and nearly $6 billion less than the president’s request. The Interior and Environment Appropriations bill would be funded at nearly $27.5 billion, $2 billion less than FY 2011 and $3.8 billion less than the president’s request. NATURAL GAS: SCIENCE COMMITTEE DISCUSSES EPA HYDRAULIC FRACTURING STUDY The House Space, Science and Technology Committee met May 11 for a hearing examining a draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. It’s become a key ingredient of a dramatic surge in gas extraction across the nation, resulting in soaring domestic reserves and low prices. The expansion of the practice has also...

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