U.S. researchers have discovered bacteria that could be used in the fight against white-nose syndrome, a deadly bat disease spreading across North America. 

 Joseph Hoyt

Joseph Hoyt, a University of California graduate student, examines a little brown bat for evidence of white-nose syndrome. (Submitted by K.E. Langwig)

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, a team led by Joseph Hoyt, a graduate student, collected 40 bacteria samples from the skin of four bat species.

Three of those species — the little brown, northern long-eared, and tri-coloured bat — overwinter in New Brunswick and have been impacted by the disease.

Hoyt grew samples of the fungus that causes white nose syndrome then introduced bacteria collected in the field. 

"You can see whether or not there's a zone of inhibition created around the bacteria, where the growth of the fungus is either suspended or the fungus itself is actually killed," said Hoyt. 

Six of the 40 samples showed some promise against the deadly fungus, while two were particularly effective. 

Hoyt said the team has now moved on to running live tests, where healthy bats are brought in and exposed to the white nose-causing fungus. They are treated by the promising bacteria and monitored. 

'There's no way we will be able to eradicate the fungus, I think at this point we're trying to mitigate and reduce impacts as best we can.' - Joseph Hoyt, researcher

"Obviously it has to pass that important phase before you would want to try this in the field. We're actually in the process of doing those tests now and looking at the results," he said.

"The idea would be that if we see some promising results from that second phase, we would move on and try a small field trial."

The first confirmed case of white-nose syndrome was detected in 2006 in New York state. It first appeared in the Maritimes in 2011. The disease has now been found in five provinces and 25 U.S. states. 

Estimates vary, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes at least 5.5 million bats have died so far.

Hoyt said he believes if the bacteria trials succeed, field treatments of hibernating bats could be effective, by increasing the natural defensive bacteria already present on the animals.

"We're at a race against time to get these different treatments and management solutions worked out to help slow the spread," he said.

"There's no way we will be able to eradicate the fungus, I think at this point we're trying to mitigate and reduce impacts as best we can."

Canadian Outlook

The Canadian Wildlife Health Centre monitors white-nose syndrome across the country and plans response to the disease.

white-nose syndrome

White-nose syndrome has decimated the populations of little brown bats, northern myotis and tri-coloured bats in Eastern Canada. In New Brunswick, it's estimated about 99 per cent of little brown bats have died. (Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/AP)

Jordi Segers. the group's national white nose syndrome co-ordinator, said the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome likely arrived in North America as a result of human travel.

But bats themselves continue to push the disease further west. 

"They can easily move 40, 50, up to 300 kilometres has even been recorded for some of these species that are affected by white-nose syndrome," said Segers.

The bats may also visit several hibernation sites in a current year, coming in to contact with the fungus and carrying it to new caves and mine shafts.

According to Segers, most hibernating bat species emerge at the end of April or in early May.

He said bats observed flying around before then are likely infected with white-nose syndrome. It causes the animals to burn off their fat stores and wake early to search for food. 

Even though it's possible for bats to shake off the infection, harsh and prolonged winter conditions this year would limit their chance of survival.

"With there still being so much snow around and no insects to eat, these bats fly out in to the landscape, hungry and there will be nothing to eat," Segers said.

Last year, the fungus which leads to white-nose syndrome was discovered as far west as Thunder Bay, Ont.

Segers said there has been no evidence of bat deaths as a result, but it's still an ominous sign. 

"That's pretty scary of course because it's now very close to the border with Manitoba, which so far has been free on infection," he said.