LHU Professor, Students Go “Batty” Over Research that Impacts the Community

LOCK HAVEN – Lock Haven University professor Dr. Barrie E. Overton and his students have been researching white-nose syndrome in bats since 2011.  In 2013, Overton and Lock Haven University received a grant for $38,000 to implement baiting techniques and control measures to help reduce infections in bats.

The fungus Pseudogymnoascus (Geomyces) destructans has been identified as the causal agent of white-nose syndrome in bats (WNS). The fungal infection hits during bats’ winter hibernation cycle and has a high mortality rate. The fungus, believed to have originated in Europe, first appeared in New York, and now afflicts bats in many states.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P. destructans has killed more than 5.5 million bats in the United States and Canada.  It is believed that this fungal infection could cause extinction of several bat species in the northeast.  The WNS outbreak and subsequent bat decline represents one of the worst disasters of wildlife in the history of the United States.

Bats are a keystone species driving ecological processes that ultimately make life more comfortable for humans but unfortunately many people view them as a pest or vector of disease.  “You are more likely to catch a disease such as rabies or roundworm infection from the raccoon or possum visiting your bird feeder than you are a bat.   This is not to say that bats do not carry rabies, but many mammal species can carry this disease and others that are just as debilitating,” said Overton.  “A bat can eat its body weight in insects in a single night.”

What are the financial and environmental costs of spraying more pesticides needed to control insects that damage the agricultural industry or insects that vector diseases that bats consume every evening for free?  Concomitantly, insects such as the mosquito are, in fact, mortal enemies of humans, as they are dangerous vectors for diseases such as West Nile Virus.

As bat populations decreases because of WNS, populations of insects such as the mosquito are going to increase, thereby increasing the chance they could vector the disease.  At a minimum, as bats decline, taxpayers and consumers are going to feel the pinch as they pay more for mosquito control measures and agricultural products.

Overton and his students have partnered with state officials to examine the white-nose syndrome.  According to Overton, “This is a community effort; bats are important to our community, so why not train students to react to one of the single greatest wildlife disasters in the history of the United States, and wouldn’t it be great if many of these students were from the area, so they could continue to get the word out about bats?”

Dan Raudabaugh (Sugar Valley), a recent graduate of Lock Haven University, helped in the initial isolations of the fungus and pioneered and published several research methods for evaluating fungal biology and physiology with Overton.  He is now at the University of Illinois and recently published his Masters research on white-nose syndrome and is moving into a doctoral program at the University of Illinois. His graduate research is gaining national acclaim.

Recent graduates Chris Smyth (Lancaster) and Sara Schlessinger (Lock Haven) co-published a manuscript with Overton, explaining potential virulence genes in the fungus that causes white nose syndrome in Bat Research News.  Smyth has started a doctorate degree at Penn State University with Dr. David Geiser continuing research on fungi but is now focusing in on fungal biofilms.  He remains interested in WNS and hopes his research can be applied to Pseudogymnoascus (Geomyces) destructans. Schlessinger is gainfully employed at Croda, Inc. in Lock Haven putting her research skills to good use.  Both completed their research projects under Overton’s supervision as a capstone associated with the new Environmental Studies Minor at Lock Haven University.

According to Overton, “The new Environmental Studies Minor at Lock Haven is an excellent vehicle to promote collaborative multidisciplinary undergraduate research.  Collaborative research with a community focus is the norm in modern science.  The Environmental Focus Group on Lock Haven Main Campus just proposed a new Environmental Studies Associates degree for Lock Haven Clearfield Campus which is under consideration.”

Overton concluded, “The funds that support this research came from the energy industry, specifically the coal industry, provided to state agencies.  Without those funds, this research would not be possible.  I hope with the energy boom currently going on in PA that companies will provide funds that support undergraduate research in the communities they are located, as I firmly believe that problem solving needs as many  partners at the table as possible, even if they sometimes have different interests and opinions. ”

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