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Over the past 10 years, bat populations in the United States and Canada have been decimated by an invasive fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or pd. Millions of bats have died. Considering that they are a keystone species, losing bats and their contributions to our ecosystem could have devastating results for plants, other animals and humans. The epidemic bats are facing is akin to the massive die off of bees that’s a threat to agricultural food supplies. Understanding what is happening to bats as well as the conditions they’re exposed to is essential for us to try and find a way to reverse the epidemic.

Many researchers in local, state, federal, academic and private organizations have been working on this problem since the fungus was first discovered in New York State in February 2006. The pd fungus is transmitted from bat to bat and infects their noses, wings and other areas of their bodies. It’s like a finger or toenail fungus that people can get, although this particular one doesn’t affect humans. The issue for bats has to do with the fungus causing an untreatable skin infection. Bats can’t go to a local pharmacy and pick up an antifungal remedy to kill the fungus like we can. Even if they could, they would be waking up in the winter time when their food sources – beetles, moths and mosquitoes – aren’t present, so there wouldn’t be anything for them to eat.

Bats normally stir and sometimes awaken during their hibernation cycle. This is normal and then they go back to sleep, much like a person does when moving around to find a new sleep position. However, when bats are infected by the pd fungus, they wake up and can’t get back to sleep, so they may fly out of the cave or mine they were hibernating in to look for a juicy beetle or moth. Except that it’s winter outside and there are no insects to eat. The bats quickly burn through the rest of their fat supplies looking for food they won’t find, all the while trying to fight off infection. They don’t last long in such conditions.

As part of the effort to find a solution for this epidemic, researchers are actively studying the pd fungus, infected bat species, species of bats that seem to be immune to pd, and the environments where bats prefer to congregate. One group in particular has been instrumental in helping to better describe the environments in caves where bats hibernate in the winter and where they collect in the summer to nurse their babies.

Aaron Addison and Bob Osburn at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have utilized a technique called LIDAR, or light imaging detection and ranging, to scan caves where hibernating and nursing bat populations can be found. As part of the process, they scan the cave passages in order to create 3D representations of the cave environment. Aaron and Bob collaborate with scientists Rick Olson and Rick Toomey at Mammoth Cave National Park as well as volunteers of the Cave Research Foundation to establish a database of scanned cave passages so further research can be conducted. Their work has allowed the quantification of cave passages into digital surfaces that can be utilized in CFD simulations. Using the LIDAR cave scans, Siemens PLM, in collaboration with Cave Research Foundation and Mammoth Cave scientists, has conducted simulations to determine what could be done to recreate known hibernation zones with the hope that safe environments could be created for the bats.

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