No Time for Bats to Rest Easy

Natalie Angiers in The New York Times:

BatsThe 10 hibernating little brown bats hang from a corner of their tailor-made refrigeration chamber at Bucknell University like a clump of old potato skins, only less animated. In torpor, bats become one with their wintry surroundings, their body temperatures falling to just above freezing, their heart rates slowing to one or two beats a minute, their breathing virtually undetectable. But suddenly, a male yanks himself free of the bunch and hops down to a dish on the floor. After taking a long, slow drink of water, the bat uses the claws on his folded wings to hoist himself along the wire mesh of the chamber, his motions angular, deliberative and spidery. A second bat rappels down for a drink, and then a third. “Well, that’s a lucky break,” said Thomas Lilley, a tall and crisply composed postdoctoral fellow from Finland. “Multiple rounds of bat drama.”

As Bucknell’s de facto bat concierge, Dr. Lilley helps wild bats acclimate to life in captivity, a difficult task with an urgent spur. He and his colleagues are laboring mightily to understand white-nose syndrome, a devastating fungal disease that has killed at least six million North American bats since it first appeared in Albany a decade ago and that threatens to annihilate some bat species entirely. Because the fungus attacks bats as they hibernate in caves, the researchers are exploring the complex biology of normal bat hibernation, and so-called arousal bouts turn out to be a big part of the puzzle, said Kenneth Field, an associate professor of biology. Hibernating bats will warm themselves out of torpor every week or two throughout the winter, for several hours at a stretch. Though researchers don’t yet understand the reasons for the thermal interludes, they have quantified just how important such thaws must be to bat survival.

More here.