They are fungi, and they arrived in the United States from overseas with an assist from humans — through travel and trade. They prefer cold conditions and kill with precision, so efficiently that they’re creating a crisis in the wild.
The death toll among amphibians, bats and snakes from fungi represents “potential extinction events,” said Coleman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife research biologist who coordinates the government’s response to the bat-killing infection known as white-nose syndrome. It’s so large, he said, that it can’t be measured “as far as numbers of dead organisms” and is “decimating populations as we know them.”
Together with a little-
understood disease that is destroying honeybees, the mass die-offs are a huge concern. “We anticipate there will be direct impacts with the loss of so many animals on a massive scale,” Coleman said.
Honeybees pollinate crops, and bats eat billions of pests that ruin them. Frogs and other amphibians help researchers find medical cures, and snakes eat tick-infested rodents that spread Lyme disease. But with little public and private funding, scientists are almost powerless to stop the plague.
“The field of fungal research is small, underfunded and often totally overlooked relative to its importance in the environment,’’ said Arturo Casadevall, a professor and chairman of microbiology and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “To my knowledge, there are no successful precedents for the control of fungal pathogens in the wild.”
The pathogens wiping out 10 species of bats, including 93 percent of little brown bats in the Northeast, and at least six snake species in nine states, such as the pygmy rattlesnake and common rat snake, may have been around for decades.
But they have been mostly overlooked until recently, because “they’re affecting wildlife that do not have a direct agricultural or human health impact” — unlike swine flu — “so they fall outside the traditional model of disease response,” Coleman said.
As the threat grows, federal and state officials are beginning to coordinate teams of scientists trying to stop it. In addition to working on the response to white-nose syndrome, Coleman is leading the effort to arrest the progress of the fungus affecting snakes.
Fish and Wildlife was directed by Congress to pursue white nose and other fungi, but was not provided with funding for staff.
“We’re tracking these killer fungi, and we’re trying to respond to them on a landscape of low interest and low budget,” Coleman said.