National Geographic : 2010 Dec
• rime on the beard of a skier, is a signal that the bat may be infected; it's also the source of the label "white-nose syndrome" for this a iction. No sign of change, Blehert tells me back in the locker room. No mortalities so far, and no visible fungus. But the experiment is still in an early stage. How does this fungus kill the bats? " at we don't know," he says. "It is, I believe, the rst disease ever characterized speci cally targeting a hibernating animal." So its mode of lethality may be di erent from anything science has ever seen. And that's only one of the unknowns. n the outskirts of Madison, Wis- consin, stands a low brick structure equipped with ventilation scrubbers and surrounded by a tall chain-link fence: the Tight Isolation Building of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC), a federal research facil- ity devoted to combating wildlife diseases. Inside, a cinder block corridor circuits the Animal Isola- tion Wing, passing a series of well-sealed experi- ment rooms, each visible through a thick window. One room is furnished with sawdust and burrow- like pipes to approximate the habitat for prairie dogs involved in a vaccine trial against Yersinia pestis, the organism that causes plague. In another room zebra nches in birdcages are playing a role in research toward a vaccine for West Nile virus. Two rooms are darkened, for the comfort of hi- bernating bats. e rst contains normal animals of the species Myotis lucifugus, commonly called little brown bats. ey are the controls. e sec- ond dark room houses little browns exposed to Geomyces destructans, a lamentous white fun- gus of unknown origin that rst appeared among North American bats in 2006. In just four years, it has hit hibernating bat populations in New York, Vermont, and a growing list of other states and Canadian provinces more lethally than Yersinia pestis hit the peasants of medieval France. David S. Blehert, a microbiologist at NWHC, leads the laboratory study of this nefarious fun- gus. He enters the second dark room wearing Tyvek coveralls, rubber boots, latex gloves, a red- ltered headlamp, and a respirator. Mov- ing quietly to avoid rousing the animals, he ap- proaches a large glass-fronted cabinet in which sits a small, screened cage of bats. e cabinet is a orist's refrigerator, adopted by Blehert because hibernating bats, like cut lilies, do best at low temperatures and high humidity. Blehert peers into the cooler, checking the bats for evidence of fungal growth around their muzzles or on their wings. White fuzz on the snout, which looks like O Contributing writer David Quammen wrote the October 2007 article "Deadly Contact," about zoonotic diseases. Stephen Alvarez photographed Madagascar's "stone forest" in November 2009.