Assessing White-nose Syndrome And Non-Stationary Changes On Bat Populations On And Near DoD Installations In The West

Dr. Sarah Olson | Wildlife Conservation Society



White-nose syndrome (WNS), caused by the fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is the most devastating disease currently affecting North American wild mammals. White-nose syndrome alters the physiology and bioenergetics of bat hibernation leading to increased arousal frequency and depletion of fat stores. Since the pathogen emerged in 2006, it has caused widespread mortality and threatened several species with extinction. The pathogen has spread throughout eastern and central North America and is advancing westward. As the pathogen progresses west, it will infect new populations and species and their hibernacula, increasing pathogen exposure pathways and disrupting the important ecosystem contributions of bats. Department of Defense (DoD) lands are known to safely harbor many of our nation’s endangered species through their conservation practices. Likewise, as bats succumb to WNS, the DoD will play a key role in addressing the conservation needs of susceptible bat species on its lands under non-stationary conditions. As bat populations decline and are listed at state and federal levels, potential repercussions for military activities and the management of DoD lands may result.

This project will develop the science to help identify species that are susceptible to WNS and thereby species of management concern to DoD. A mechanistic WNS survivorship model will be used to study the interaction of host bioenergetics, pathogen, and environment. This research will help predict the impact of WNS in western North America where bat diversity is highest on the continent. The survivorship model will be combined with species distribution models to explore the ecology and management of WNS disease dynamics under non-stationary conditions. This project will assist the DoD in preparedness and response to WNS. The core objectives are:

  1. Collect robust morphometrics, bioenergetics, and hibernacula environmental data on up to five western North American bat species representing different hibernating behaviors and geographic settings at three to five preferably DoD sites each year.
  2. Examine the transferability of the mechanistic WNS bioenergetics survivorship model (based on host, pathogen, and environmental characteristics) developed for bat species affected by WNS in the East to a set of three to five representative bat species found in the West.
  3. Develop approaches that integrate the mechanistic WNS survivorship model with species distribution models to evaluate the presence of WNS with plausible scenarios of non-stationary conditions (e.g., climate change) and to explore the sensitivity of the integrated model to different parameters and data availability.
  4. Disseminate knowledge and findings through scientific meetings and peer-reviewed literature.

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Technical Approach

Project objectives will be met using well-integrated contemporary technical approaches. Bioenergetics and environmental data will be collected over three field seasons, consisting of fall and winter sampling at sites throughout the West. Bioenergetics data, including morphometrics, body composition, and torpid metabolic rates during hibernation, will be collected from up to five western North American bat species. Environmental data will be collected simultaneously to understand the variation in microclimate conditions experienced by hibernating bats. These data will be used to help iteratively parameterize a mechanistic WNS survivorship model that models the capacity of bats to survive hibernation given the bioenergetics disruptions caused by the fungal infection. Adaptive project/research management will be used to help target field collections to minimize model uncertainty and improve model performance. The data collected will be used to build integrated ecological niche and mechanistic WNS models using plausible future projected climates and land-cover change scenarios.

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Research outcomes will be used to evaluate the transferability of a bioenergetics-based conceptual model of WNS survivorship to western species of concern to DoD. The end-user community will benefit from never-before measured data on western bat species’ bioenergetics (e.g., metabolism and arousal behavior), central to WNS disease progression and species’ mortality. Findings on transferability and validity of the mechanistic WNS survivorship model will be disseminated to DoD collaborators, land managers, scientists, conservation groups, and the general public to guide strategic approaches to management of bat habitats and the implementation of potential mitigation strategies. Species-level physiological and ecological niche responses to P. destructans infection will be closely monitored to iteratively and adaptively assess model performance as WNS moves through the target study area.

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Points of Contact

Principal Investigator

Dr. Sarah Olson

Wildlife Conservation Society

Phone: 608-347-3828

Program Manager

Resource Conservation and Resiliency