Hoerner leads continued research on white-nose syndrome in bats

May 11, 2018
Dr. Jeff Huebschman and bat
Samantha Hoerner

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – University of Wisconsin-Platteville student Samantha Hoerner along with Dr. Jeff Huebschman, professor of biology, and two other students conducted research on the ongoing effects of white-nose syndrome on local bat populations. Hoerner’s involvement with the undergraduate research project began prior to the summer of 2017.

“I had Diversity of Life with Dr. Huebschman, and while we were learning about fungi, he introduced us to how white-nose syndrome affects bats,” said Hoerner, a senior animal science major. “He mentioned that he conducts research every summer and that anyone who is interested could contact him. I sent him an email, and I have been involved ever since.”

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that grows on bats throughout much of eastern North America. The fungus has spread annually since it was first discovered in New York in 2006. The fungus disrupts a bat’s hibernation cycle, resulting in bats waking up in the middle of winter with no food to eat. The bats that researchers catch are those that have not yet been exposed to the fungus or have survived so far. The fungus doesn’t leave the bat; it simply goes dormant and potentially allows these bats to spread the fungus through its fungal spores to other bats and new locations.

Hoerner has made the most of her undergraduate researching experience. She received a Pioneer Summer Research Grant, provided through the Office of the Provost, to screen for the fungus in bats on the UW-Platteville campus and surrounding locations. She also participated in a recent WiSys Quick Pitch competition, in which she had less than three minutes to share her research with a panel of judges. Hoerner placed second among the 10 participants in the competition.

In the past, Huebschman’s researchers focused on catching, weighing and tagging bats. With the grant, Hoerner and the other student researchers were able to get genetic sampling kits from collaborators at the University of Northern Arizona, who then also screened the UW-Platteville samples for the presence of the fungus. After screening the samples, the students were able to analyze the results that they collected.

“Our results revealed positive matches for the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome,” Hoerner said. “The most interesting finding was that we had a red bat test positive for the syndrome. Red bats don’t normally have this issue because they are usually in warm areas. These bats don’t hibernate, and the fungus affects bats that hibernate in caves. We were unable to find any documentation about any other red bat with this syndrome in Wisconsin. Along with our red bat, we had seven little brown bats that were born this year that were positive for the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. Being positive already for these bats is detrimental, because they will be at a disadvantage having already been exposed to the fungus prior to their first hibernation. In our area, little brown bats are highly affected by white nose syndrome.”

This study was Hoerner’s first experience with undergraduate research, and she enjoyed being out in the field and catching bats. Hoerner admittedly isn’t a fan of lab courses, but she likes the challenge that undergraduate research presents and is thankful for the help that Huebschman gave the group throughout the process.

“Interpreting the results isn’t the greatest part, but when you have an advisor as great as Dr. Huebschman, it makes the process go much smoother,” Hoerner said. “He was there every step of the way to help us through our studies.”

Prior to sending the samples to Arizona, the student researchers had to follow specific directions on how to properly handle the bats and their samples. Before the examiner can begin the genetic sampling process, the students would weigh, sex and determine the reproductive status of the bats. Examiners dipped a cotton swab into sterile water, rolled the swab five times along the bat’s forearm and five times across its muzzle before placing the swab back into a stabilizing serum. These samples were stored throughout the summer until the researchers were finished collecting samples.

The students completed their studies at the Rountree Branch stream in Memorial Park and surrounding sites.  In addition, Hoerner visited a mine that has a large population of hibernating bats. At this mine, many of the bats are affected by white-nose syndrome, and the researchers needed to dress in a way that would prevent the fungus from spreading further after they left. This experience was another unique opportunity that Hoerner received during the research, which she hopes will provide her with an edge over others in her field.

“I believe that this experience helped me get in to veterinary school,” Hoerner said. “This experience gave me an extra edge. It also helped me receive a letter of recommendation and build high quality relationships with other people in my field of study.” Hoerner will begin at Iowa State University this fall.

Hoerner believes that this research will be useful to others in the field of agriculture and for those who enjoy spending time in the outdoors. Bats help farmers by reducing the need for excessive pesticide usage and people who enjoy the outdoors from being swarmed by bugs.

Written by: Dalton Miles, Student Writer, Communications, milesda@uwplatt.edu

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