Mexican free-tailed bats swirl higher and higher as they make their nightly exit from the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve outside of Mason, Tex. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News via AP)

Sometimes bad guys are clad in white.

A creepy, sticky and icky menace known as white-nose syndrome that attacks little brown bats as they're curled up sleeping during their winter hibernation is a case in point.

More than 7 million bats have perished from white-nose since it was discovered in an Albany, N.Y. cave nine years ago, and a new research paper provides insight into why. As little brown bats observed for the study dozed in a coma-like sleep, their immune systems recognized the attacking disease but never didn't lift a finger to stop it.

[Nearly seven million bats have died from white-nose fungus]

"The alarm is going up and no one is showing up to put out the fire," said Kenneth A. Field, the lead author of the research released Thursday. Normally, when inflammation and swelling happens, immune systems spring into action like a body guard. But for little brown bats, it turned a little and kept sleeping. 

BU-led researchers predict that little brown bats may be extinct in the Northeast within 16 years. (Boston University/BU Today)

Field is one of the first researchers to take the study of the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus that causes white nose from a petri dish to the field. He watched helplessly as the disease ate away at membranes in the wings of the bats. His understanding of what was happening was limited by the step-by-step nature of research. More observation was needed to know exactly why the bats were so easily taken out.

"We don’t know for sure that it’s the fungus in white nose that’s stopping the cells, or that the bats are hibernating and can’t respond," said Field, an associate professor of biology at Bucknell University. Little brown bats that once filled the night skies to hunt insects have been nearly wiped out on the Atlantic coast, and a recent U.S. Geological Survey report said it could take decades for them to recover, if at all.

Field hopes the study is a positive step toward finding a way to one day strengthen the immune system of bats or maybe even kill white-nose. The paper broke down the processes happening in bats and the disease attacking them, showing pathways that gave way in the animals and how genes in the disease behaved as they destroyed.

Electron microscopy of white nose syndrome. (Kevin Keel/Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study) Electron microscopy of white nose syndrome. (Kevin Keel/Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study)

An "important finding was to look at how the genes in the fungus expressed" in order to know how to target its growth," Field said. Maybe scientist can develop a drug, he speculated. But wondering how such a drug could be administered to bats, or how white-nose can possibly be disinfected in some of the vast cave systems where bats hibernate brought him back to Earth.

"It’s not understood what’s going in the summer with the disease because the caves stay cold all year long," he said. "It’s still a mystery what’s going on."

The paper was published Thursday in the journal PLOS PathogensOther authors included Joseph S. Johnson, Thomas M. Lilley and Sophia M. Reeder, all researchers in Bucknell's biology department. Melissa J. Behr, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was also an author.

At least one other research paper showed that bats that survive hibernation -- many drop dead to the floor of their cave -- develop massive inflammation when their immune systems awaken and kick in. "But the fire has spread too far," he said, "and it’s too late."

Pause for a second to see the big picture, the awesome devastation biologists have witnessed now for nearly a decade. In the spring, they've visited caves in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma and other states to find hundreds of thousands of bats lying dead or flopping about in the late stages of agonizing deaths.

Bats are preparing to reenter caves and abandoned mines in late October for a four-month hibernation. “I’m terribly, terribly concerned,” Katie Gillies, a conservation biologist for Bat Conservation International, said when they were about to hibernate last year. “I don’t think the disease will run its course. There is no way to save our bats from white nose without intervention. The situation is . . . absolutely dire.”

White-nose syndrome is basically Ebola for bats, an animal pandemic. Gray bats, big brown bats, Northern long-eared bats and tri-colored bats are also affected. Ninety-percent of little brown bats in the northeast are dead. Here's how the research paper describes it: "White-nose syndrome is the most devastating epizootic wildlife disease of mammals in history, having killed millions of hibernating bats in North America since 2007."

Sometimes it drives bats mad before they start to sleep. Consider this 2013 incident Great Smoky Mountain National Park that straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. Bats that were supposed to be sleeping were out and about, acting crazy in many cases.

[Bats hit hard by deadly one-two punch: windmills and white-nose syndrome]

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, they launched their mouse-sized bodies at unsuspecting tourists, who tried to shoo them off with walking sticks, fishing poles and their bare hands. One bat flew smack into a trail walker’s forehead.

This might seem funny if you don't know what bats mean to the world. They pollinate everything from bananas to peaches to agave plants from which tequila is extracted. It's a good bet that people who dislike bats dislike gypsy moths and other moth species even more. Moths are like a tater tot for bats.

Bats that eat bugs by the metric ton are worth about $3 billion per year in pest control for U.S. agriculture, according to a separate report by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2011.

“People often ask why we should care about bats,” said Paul Cryan, a USGS research biologist who helped write the report. “Bats are saving us big bucks by gobbling up insects that eat or damage our crops.”


A male big brown bat. (University of Maryland)

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