Theory about fungus may explain bat plague

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hibernating bats, fungal infections, warm-bodied mammals, the mass extinction of the dinosaurs – one controversial theory from 2005 connects them all.

White-nose syndrome, the disease now believed to have killed about a million North American bats, confounded scientists after it was first documented in 2006. In a sense it was merely a sort of athlete's foot: a fungal infection that attacked the skin. So how did it kill?

Researchers have found a clue in Arturo Casadevall's theory based on the ability of mammals' bodies to control, and elevate, their temperatures.

In 2005, Casadevall, chairman of the department of microbiology and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, first proposed that, since many potential fungal attackers can't handle temperatures much higher than those of the environment, this ability gave mammals an advantage over other animals.

Researchers exploring the pathology of white-nose syndrome have found the idea helpful, because such a protection would disappear during hibernation, when bats' body temperatures drop.

Casadevall says he is following the white-nose research with interest. "It's very important because it provides indirect evidence that this theory had legs," Casadevall told LiveScience.

Casadevall extended this idea to speculate that, given evidence of an intense flurry of fungal growth around the time of the dinosaurs' extinction, the success of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs may have had a body heat connection. That suggestion has not been well received by paleontologists.

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